Well That Was Exhausting

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Wearing Down)

In the most recent chapter of Covalent I have one of my main characters, Aylme, brought to her absolute limit as she has rushes her unconscious comrades from danger, including one that is quite a bit larger than she is. Thus far she has been quick-thinking, resourceful, and determined, but one exertion after another I have been wearing the character down to the bone. She is exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, nearly out of fresh ideas, fighting down fear, and asking more of her muscles than ever before. And, I hope, the readers are feeling that same exhaustion themselves, as if they have been right alongside her, wearing down their minds and bodies as she has.

Coincidentally, I am also trying to create that exact same sensation in my refactoring of The Storm. Here I have two sailors caught in a storm, their boats tethered together, working to their limits to overcome one life-threatening threat after another.

But why do some action-packed stories make us feel energized, like we’ve just been for a brisk walk, while others give us the sense of having been put through the wringer, totally depleted of all our energy? Well, let’s take a look at one of my favorite exhausting films to see what lessons we can glean from it.

The Master of Exhaust)

If there’s any director who has a monopoly on tiring tales, it’s Steven Spielberg. Think of Indiana Jones staggering to his feet after the lengthy tank fight in The Last Crusade. Think of Martin Brody hanging from the sinking mast at the end of Jaws. Think of Captain Miller slumped on the ground at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Think of Alan Grant reclining into his helicopter seat at the end of Jurassic Park. All of these characters have gone to their absolute limits and beyond. Whatever they have achieved by the end of their story, they have obtained it only by wringing out every last bit of themselves, down to the last drop. In fact, some of them have given so much that they won’t be making it home alive.

But these films are all from the height of Spielberg’s career, and I’m going to instead bring attention to one of his lesser-known works, a made-for-television movie that came out in 1971 called Duel. This film tells the story of a simple man named David Mann, who is driving through the Mojave desert for a business trip. Along the way he overtakes a large diesel truck. The truck driver attempts to pass him back again, but Mann maintains his lead, and in doing so incurs the wrath of the other man. And when I say “incurs the wrath,” I mean that the diesel truck driver now means to out-and-out kill him, as evidenced when he nearly baits Mann into driving full-speed into an oncoming vehicle!

Thus begins the duel for which the film is named. Mann is at an extreme disadvantage in his small sedan. He has a bit of an edge in speed and dexterity, but those are small comforts given the size and strength of the relentless behemoth that bears down on him in one life-threatening attack after another.

In terms of character and themes, Duel is a pretty simple film. There are very few characters, very few locations, and it only runs for 90 minutes. But in that simplicity it allows itself to focus purely on one aspect: the exhaustion of a relentless chase. It fills out its time and wears out its audience by consistently coming up with one nail-biting sequence after another. There is that moment where the diesel truck is pressing Mann’s car from behind, trying to force it into an oncoming train. Then there is that time Mann runs for a phone booth to call the police, just to have the truck come blasting down, smashing the booth to bits. Then there are the moments Mann tries to lose himself behind the killer-vehicle, just to find that it has hidden in wait further down the road.

The film exhausts the viewer because it employs one unique danger after another. Each is new and novel and takes a little bit of our energy to process. If we saw the same sort of thrill repeated over and over it wouldn’t get our blood pumping nearly so much, but the constantly fresh experiences take a toll on us over time.

This isn’t all, though. The film also employs another trick that Spielberg utilized many times later in his other films. It shows us the main character breaking down, one small part at a time. Mann doesn’t pass through a battle, heal back at home, then return fresh to another fight. No, he slowly falls apart in one, long, continuous grind. He progresses from relaxed, to irritated, to angry, to horrified, to fearful, to flat-out desperate. And even has he breaks down, his car gets dents and dings, breaks its radiator, loses parts, and has trouble even starting. Each new scene it is looking worse and worse, that much closer to falling apart entirely.

90 minutes might not be very long for a film, but it is extremely long for such a prolonged beatdown! And being the empathetic creatures that we are, we cannot help but share in its burden.

Applying the Lessons)

One unique danger after another, a single, unwavering deterioration of the character. These are the two principles that create an exhausting tale.

And I have tried to employ both of these principles in Covalent. I have kept the focus locked on Aylme for the last chapter, and will continue to do so in the next, showing a single, prolonged instance of her being worn down bit-by-bit, her resources progressively breaking around her, one novel situation being replaced by another, constantly driving towards that point of collapse. I have also been doing the exact same thing in The Storm, describing how both the nerve and the boats of our sailors break apart from one unique trauma after another.

At the end of it all, if I’ve done things right, my audiences will not have done anything directly strenuous themselves, but they’ll still be utterly fatigued just for having been witness to all these agonizing trials. My stories won’t just take the vitality from my characters, they will demand a small bit of life from the readers as well!

Broken Rules

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Curiosity Satisfied)

In the 1997 film Men in Black, undercover officer James Edwards is recruited into the highly secretive MIB organization, which was instituted to protect humanity from all manner of extraterrestrial threats. In order to carry out their assignments the agents of the MIB make use of extremely high-tech gadgets, such as memory-erasing devices and super-powered weapons.

Of course James, like the audience, is curious about what all of these things do, but is repeatedly told to “not touch things!” Perhaps the most prominent of these curiosities is a red button in the car of James’s mentor, Agent K.

“Oh, the red button there, kid! Don’t ever, ever touch the red button!”

Well, of course that button’s going to get pushed at some point! In an interesting piece of reverse psychology, as soon as stories tell us that something must not happen, we know that sooner or later they will. After all, there isn’t any reason for them to show us the wall unless they’re going to crash through it at some point. And so, near the conclusion of the film we get the following line:

“You remember the little, red button? Push the little, red button!”

James does so, and the entire car transforms, with two jet engines springing out of the back, sending it rocketing down a tunnel! Right before it plows into the back of cars stopped in traffic it flips upside down and drives along the roof! And with that, our curiosity has been satisfied.


Men in Black isn’t the first film to show a barrier in the first act and then break it in the third. A very similar sequence plays out in the 1984 film Ghostbusters. In this movie, a trio of parapsychology professors start a business to eradicate paranormal menaces in New York City. The most genius member of their crew, Egon Spengler, develops some nuclear-powered gear to help them wrangle the inter-dimensional beings that they encounter. The first time they use the equipment, though, they each shoot their proton-powered energy beams at the same target, which is nearly a fatal mistake!

“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you,” Egon tells them. “Don’t cross the streams! It would be bad! Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light!”

Well there you have it, clearly they’re never, ever going to cross the streams. Well, actually no, of course they are! Specifically they do so at the climax of the film, when they face a monstrous parademon who draws his energy from a dimensional gate. Nothing that the Ghostbuster team tries has any effect on the monster or the gate, until finally Egon comes to the inevitable conclusion.

“I’ve a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate. We’ll cross the streams.” As a further encouragement to the other members of the team he adds, “there’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”

And so they cross the streams, and the combined power of their proton packs gives them the energy output they need to destroy the dimensional gate and banishing the parademon back to its original realm! Fortunately the heroes do survive to tell the tale.

In Men in Black, the little, red button was simply a volatile gadget that needed to only be used in the right situation. In Ghostbuster the forbidden action was a bit more serious, as it was something that could have potentially catastrophic consequences. That Egon would suggest that they embrace those potential consequences underlines just how desperate their situation has become at the end.

Broken Rules)

But sometimes broken rules aren’t just used to show how severe the danger has become, sometimes they are used to show character development.

There are several rules established early on in the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. In the movie’s introduction we learn that the Beast was once a young prince, who was transformed into a monstrous brute for failing to show kindness to an enchantress. And he will remain a beast until he is able to show sincere love for another person, and be sincerely loved by that person in return. But the Beast becomes despondent, locking himself away in his castle, concluding that no one could ever love a beast.

Then, one day, an old man wanders into his home, followed by the daughter of that man come to rescue him. The Beast allows that the old man may leave, but only if the daughter remain a prisoner of the castle. She consents.

The Beast tells her that she may never leave the castle, but she may go anywhere within it…except for the West Wing. But, of course, she soon breaks the second of those rules, trespassing into the West Wing where she finds clues of the man the Beast once was, and the heartache he carries inside.

The Beast is infuriated, and she then breaks the other rule by running away. She is beset by wolves, though, and the Beast saves her, though he is severely wounded in the process. She brings him back to the castle and nurses him back to health, during which time they grow to sincerely care for one another.

Then all of the rules that the Beast imposed are broken again, but this time he is the one unmaking them. He encourages her leave, tells her that she is no longer a prisoner of the castle. She does so, but then returns at the end, just in time to break the last and greatest wall, the one put in place by the story’s introduction. She confesses that against all odds, she has grown to love the Beast, and with that the curse is broken.

And So)

We often put up barriers in our stories, establishing rules of what cannot happen. But of course we only do so to then break through them by the end! The reasons for doing so are twofold. The first is to illustrate how drastically things have changed in the world. What was once an unthinkable action with huge consequences is now a better alternative to the dire situation we find at the story’s climax! The second reason is to show character changes. The choice that once would have gone against everything a character stood for comes to be in perfect harmony with where they are now. They have changed, and the reversal of their rule is an excellent way to illustrate it.

Which brings me to my current story, Covalent. In the last chapter Cace briefly considered restoring Rolar to health by fusing into him the last remnants of the beast they defeated. Of course he immediately rejected that idea because it would be entirely unconscionable!

But, of course, why would I show you that decision unless it was going to be reversed? And indeed, as the story goes along things will become so desperate that the unthinkable becomes necessary!

Unknown Fears

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Worse Things)

In the last section of Covalent I introduced a new threat, a river that congealed part of itself into thin strands, and then stretched those strands out to grasp and throttle all other forms of life. This created a sinister image of finger-like tendrils reaching through the soil, feeling for our heroes to snuff out their lives.

Of course, a couple chapters ago I had just introduced another enemy, this one was a tall beast, with a head and body like a giant clam shell, and four long, spindly legs extending from the back. This one had been large and imposing, but I feel like the dark river strands are more unnerving.

For worse than brute strength is the sinister unknown.

The Fear of the Unknown)

It is often said that the thing we fear the most is the unknown. I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but why? Why would the unknown evil be worse than the known one?

I would suggest it is because when something is unknown we tend to assume the worst. The vague, undefined form becomes a placeholder for all the things that we are most afraid of. When I hear something go bump in the middle of the night, I am not afraid because it is unknown, I am afraid because being unknown, I then jump to the assumption that it is a madman who has broken into our home and is coming for my children, the thing that I most fear.

Thus I could try to guess what your worst fear is, and then write exactly that into a story. But if I were wrong, then you would not be as frightened as you could be, and if I were right, then it would be the scariest story for you only until your worst fears changed. For as we grow, the things we love change, and the fear of losing them shifts as well.

And this is why I escalated from a clear and imposing threat to a more vague and mysterious one. What do those icy hands feel like when they grasp a human victim? Well, I’m not ever going to describe that. I’m going to leave that up to the imagination of each individual reader, to conjure up the most terrifying sensation that they are capable of.

Legends of Fear)

One of my favorite spooky stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, is very aware of this dread of the unknown. Throughout its tale there is a consuming obsession with the strange and the shrouded. Myths abound of ghosts and phantoms, who sometimes are there and sometimes aren’t, whose rules of operation are inconsistent and disputed. Most famous of all are the legends of the Headless Horseman, a decapitated soldier who still wages battle on moonlit nights.

Enthralled by all these stories is Ichabod Crane, the local schoolteacher and protagonist of the tale. He is also enthralled by the daughter of a wealthy farmer named Katrina Van Tassel, and spends much of his time trying to woo her. This brings him into competition with the Brom Bones, the rough-and-tumble hero of the county, who also has his eyes set on Katrina.

One fateful night, Ichabod Crane finds himself riding through the woods alone. He is full of tales of ghosts and goblins, and feeling extremely unnerved about his situation. He mistakes the wind blowing through the branches for a whistle, the rubbing of boughs for an ethereal moan, and a scar in the tree for some white, hanging phantom. As I mentioned before, he is perceiving these unknown sights and sounds, and they become placeholders for all his worst dreads.

But then, most terrifying of all, a huge and silent rider, enshrouded entirely in black comes up alongside him. He says not a word, his intentions he keeps to himself, and so the reader is left to imagine all manner of malice hiding within that rider’s cloak.

But then, one solitary detail of the rider is made abundantly clear. Ichabod notices that there is no head upon the person’s shoulders, rather he is holding it down at his waist! With that Ichabod bolts and an epic chase ensues! Ichabod making for a bridge that legend states the Headless Horseman cannot cross. By the skin of his teeth he makes the other side, but upon turning back he sees that the phantom has thrown his own head through the air, crashing it into Ichabod’s cranium!

And then…well…we never actually find out what happens. The next day the local townsfolk find Ichabod Crane’s horse wandering around by itself, and the schoolteacher’s belongings strewn about the road, and a pumpkin smashed to pieces off to the side. Ichabod, however, is never seen again.

The story states that Brom Bones seems suspiciously knowing of the events that night, but neither confirms or denies that he was actually involved. And so, at the the end, there are several possibilities for what transpired. Was Ichabod menaced by Brom Bones in disguise, or was it the actual Headless Horseman, or was it just his own overactive imagination? If one of the former two, was he run out of town, or was he actually killed by his foe?

All of the story’s unknown elements leave it up to the reader to assume their own, personal, worst-case scenario. Which idea frightens you most? Being driven from your home, going crazy, being murdered by a member of your own society, or being claimed by an actual phantom of the night? The story is a placeholder for whatever fate you dread most.

One final detail from the story: in its last paragraph in mentions that Ichabod Crane has, fittingly, becomes another part of the local legends, his story now being recounted at all of their social gatherings. There are those that even claim to have heard his old, familiar tunes being sung by a melancholic voice from the remains of his old schoolhouse. In the end has he become a part of the strange unknown.

Continuing Into the Dark)

As I continue with Covalent I will keep these principles firmly in my mind. I might unveil more of how the river’s strange, dark tendrils operate, but rather than provide a better understanding, each revelation will only serve to make the menace more of an enigma, a placeholder for the deepest fears of the reader.

Building Blocks

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Back to School)

Learning isn’t always fun. Especially when you are learning something that you don’t care about, and must do so by a firm deadline! I still consider some of my required college courses to be the most torturous ordeals I’ve ever gone through! Not simply because they were hard, but because they just didn’t interest me. I could handle difficult courses if I cared about the subject, but if I didn’t, then studying for them was sheer misery.

And, like many students, I would run away from the drudgery, finding refuge in the likes of novels, movies, music, and games. I would “take a break,” trying to find something that was as far away from “education” as possible.

Or was I?

Because when I think about the movies I watched, the books I read, and the games I played, I realize that they were all educational in their own way. They challenged me and required me to learn things I didn’t know, just like the very lessons I was running away from.

Take Lord of the Rings for example, one of the most demanding novels I’ve ever read. It’s prose was thick, it’s world was sprawling, and it’s lore was voluminous. Without even realizing it I was filing away a multitude of facts about the geography, history, and politics of Middle Earth and these were often the very subjects that I was running away from in the real world. Here, though, they were a delight to me!

Or what about when I watched Good Will, Hunting, a moving drama about a young man who has incredible potential, but is held back by all the emotional scars he carries. I’d watch that movie and feel that it had taught me so much more about psychology, society, and mental health than any of the college courses I was taking.

And there was also Portal, one of my favorite video games of all time. Here I was taught basic concepts of physics and teleportation, and then required to prove my mastery of these concepts by combining them in increasingly intricate ways. Portal helped ease me into the art of complex problem solving, which was a great boon to my classes in logic, mathematics, and programming.

So was I really coming to these movies and games and stories to get away from education? Absolutely not! Learning is one of the absolute greatest pleasures for us in life! Learning is always fun!

When it’s done right, anyway.

A Curious Mind)

Our minds want to be stimulated. We genuinely hate to be bored. William Faulkner once wrote, that “given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain,” and there have been studies conducted that show he is far from alone in this sentiment!

Behind boredom is the insatiable yearning to discover new things. This is why we have never had a generation that looked at what they already had and said “that’s enough, I won’t try to add anything to it.” We always try to discover something more. Every invention and advancement is always surpassed by another, because we are made to learn and then create.

And whenever our learning surpasses what we can create literally, we create them literarily instead! Think of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne, who lacked the technology to build out the rockets and robots in their heads, but they went to the workshop of the mind and invented it all anyway, laying a foundation that both fiction and science have continued to build upon ever since! Continued to build on because, of course, we do not see their work and say “that is enough.” No, we have to press further, reach higher, and discover deeper!

Good Learning)

But then why are school courses often so tedious? What is it about some forms of learning that is so pleasant, and others that is so repulsive?

To some degree, of course, it will depend on the subject and the student. All of us may be curious, but none of us are curious about all things. For one student mathematics is a challenging delight, for another it is genuine torture. I mentioned a novel, film, and game that all stimulated my mind, but not everyone likes Lord of the Rings, or Good Will Hunting, or Portal. If each of these were required in school courses, there would be those that saw them as the exact same drudgery that I was trying to escape from.

But I do believe there is a common trait that typically separates positive learning experiences from negative ones. It is when the education involves some sort of personal interaction from its pupil. Being “told” an education is never going to be as stimulating as actually living it!

Earlier, when I spoke of how our minds want to be stimulated, that thread quickly ran into examples of people inventing things. Education is at its absolute best when it is gained through the act of discovery or invention. Thus the best education is given incomplete, requiring the pupil to make the second half of it.

Lord of the Rings, for example, is already an interesting book, but what made it truly come alive for me was when it sparked visions of fantasies that weren’t on its pages. And Good Will Hunting is a moving film in and of itself, but it became so much more because when it made me reflect on my own life, and the ways I keep my own potential locked behind my wounds. And of course Portal, being a game, is designed entirely around interactivity. It gives the problems and the tools, but every solution was an invention of my own.

And this same inventiveness has always been present in my favorite courses at school. Because yes, I actually do have a lot of pleasant memories from school as well. And virtually all of those pleasant memories are based around classes that told me to come up with my own program, or draw my own picture, or write my own story. Then I wasn’t simply using my education to rehash what other people had discovered, I was using it to discover my own secrets. Secrets that the world has never known.

Inventive Story)

And this is the exact sensation I am trying to capture in my latest story, Covalent. Cace’s exploration of the Ether is meant to capture all the best parts of discovery, invention, and education. But even more than that, I am hoping that it will spark a little inventiveness in the minds of my reader as well. Hopefully by my leaving some stones unturned, the reader will have a way to make their own mark in this world!

Step Forward, Fall Back

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The Bad Solution)

In the last chapter of Covalent our characters faced a powerful and immediate threat. A massive creature was intent upon killing each and every one of them, and it was well equipped to do exactly that! First it knocked out Rolar, then it had Aylme pinned down, and soon it would turn its attention to Cace.

At this point Cace knew that he needed to remove this threat, whatever it took. And thankfully he found a way to do exactly that. He discovered that all the flora and fauna around them were parts of an otherworldly machine, and that he could train that machine’s furnace to consume the monster and its young.

He did this, and the immediate threat was resolved!

But even as the children enjoyed their moment of reprieve, greater dangers were now lurking. For Cace also witnessed what role that monstrous creature served for the machine. It was a guardian, tasked with identifying threats to the system and rooting them out. That was the very function it was executing when it targeted the children. Now, though, that guardian has been destroyed, and so there is no line of defense for the deeper and darker enemies out there, ones that the children have not yet even conceived of.

Cace may have saved the day, but he seriously jeopardized tomorrow to do so!

An Opening and a Blocking)

A similar conundrum befalls Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Throughout her story she is constantly pressed by two great needs: to win the love of her life, Ashley Wilkes, and to restore her her family home after the Civil War leaves them destitute.

The only problem is that these two core desires are often at odds to one another. For example she ends up marrying other men for their money, thus securing the finances to keep her home, but which obviously poses an obstacle to being with the man that she loves.

Indeed the only way for her to get away with Ashley would be to run off with him, making herself a disgrace and abandoning the home she has fought so hard for. She cannot have both, and she must choose.

Or so it would seem, right up to the moment that her current husband, Rhett, offers her a divorce and Ashley’s own wife dies from complications in childbirth. Here at last is the opportunity to be with the man that she loves, stay in her family home, and retain at least an outward face of honor.

But for all these sudden opportunities, Scarlett’s heart has betrayed her. For now she comes to realize that she truly loves her current husband, Rhett, but he’s become wise to the games she’s playing and no longer wants anything to do with her. Thus as one door opens a window closes, and Scarlett is right back to her impossible juggling act!

Tactical Retreat)

The same shuffle back-and-forth happens all the time in the Mission: Impossible films, too. Ethan Hunt is a secret agent, tasked with preventing end-of-the-world catastrophes, and each movie sees him being thrown into the deep end, rubbing shoulders with weapons’ dealers, elite assassins, and criminal masterminds. Ethan must make deals with the big fish in order to catch the biggest!

And this tends to see Ethan jeopardizing today in an effort to save tomorrow. Many times he has to make a trade, and the only thing he has to offer is the very thing he isn’t supposed to give up.

Take, for example, his situation in the middle of Ghost Protocol. In this film, Ethan finds a way to intercept the launch codes that the main baddie, Kurt Hendricks, wants to use to start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The rest of the team congratulate him on a job well done. Hendricks can’t obtain the launch codes now, so he can’t fire a missile, so he can’t start the war that he wants.

But Ethan disagrees. They might stop Hendricks here, but the man will not be deterred. He will find another way, and that time Ethan and his team might not be there to stop him. Ethan knows that more important than holding onto the codes is using them as bait to lure the recluse out of hiding.

And so the team sets up a handoff, giving the codes to Hendricks’ courier and then following him back to his base. Or at least that’s the plan. Unfortunately, they lose track of the courier, and thus their foe moves one step closer to his homicidal plan. They will just have to cut him off at the next pass.

Back and Back Again)

This is also the pattern in the second part of the Back to the Future series. This film begins with a simple premise: Marty McFly must travel to the future with Doc Brown in order to prevent his future family from making some life-shattering mistakes. It’s a fairly simple task, and they quickly get everything sorted out.

Except for not. Because their presence inadvertently tips off an old enemy of the family, Biff Tannen, to the existence of the time machine. Biff uses the machine to go back in time and pull a few strings of his own, and when Marty and Doc go back to that timeline, they discover it has become a total nightmare!

So now they must go on another time-hopping trip to find out what Biff did to mess everything up and undo those changes. It’s a long-fought process, but at last they succeed…just in time for the time machine to get struck by lightning and transported 80 years in the past, stranding Doc and Marty in the wrong timelines once more!

In Back to the Future, every step forward seems to cause more problems than it solves!

That’s Drama!)

And that’s how you fill out two hours of film, or a season of television, or a hundred-thousand words of a novel! Every story requires an objective and constant opposition to it. Each story is extended out whenever the protagonist has to make compromises, has to surrender the upper hand, has to concede the battle to win the war. We are tantalized by seeing how close they come to their objective, devastated by how far they fall from it, and engrossed by how hard they fight to get back to it again.

And that is exactly why I had Cace solve the more immediate problem of the creature’s attack by opening the door for even greater challenges down the road. Doing so meant that the story doesn’t end prematurely, it will be extended out long enough to become what I need it to be.

Better Moves

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The Game of Chess)

I’m not any good at chess, but I do like to play just for the fun of it. I would describe my style as simply being “try to make as few boneheaded blunders as possible!” Usually that’s what decides the winner in the games I play, whoever is better able to catch themselves from making mistakes will prevail.

And the key to not making mistakes is typically to look…and then look again. Very often in chess a move will immediately suggest itself, and the temptation is to grab the piece and swipe it across the board with confidence, only afterwards realizing the hole that move opened. So it is better to acknowledge the move that first occurs to the mind, and then keep looking to see what might be wrong with it.

And the little bit of reading I’ve done on chess strategy suggests that principle is still true even after you actually know what you’re doing. It is often advised that as soon as you see a “good move” to hold off on it, as there is probably a more sublime one still waiting to be seen. Experts don’t win just by making less mistakes, they win by holding out for more of those sublime moves than their opponent.

Waiting for Ideas)

And the same holds true for writing a story. It is very easy to jump from one plot point to another, following a chain of the first “good idea” that pops into your head at each juncture.

But usually the first idea that pops into your head is the obvious one. And as with the game of chess, great stories aren’t achieved by writing the obvious “good moves,” but by holding out for the more sublime ones. Anyone can write a story of obvious “good moves,” but that’s not what people go to the bookstore for, they go there to find something that will take them deeper than the immediately obvious.

The problem with always writing that initial obvious idea, is that because it is obvious it has already occurred to the reader, too. They will therefore anticipate it, and then have that unpleasant sense of “I already know exactly where this story is going.” Nor is it any better to just take the first idea and then go in the exact opposite direction from it. That quickly becomes just as predictable and just as uninteresting. You don’t want to just roll out a carpet for the reader, but neither do you want to constantly pull the rug out from under their feet. You want to lead them on a surprising journey.

Quality scenes take real effort. Genius rarely occurs “on demand,” it is the result of serious work. Sometimes the perfect plot point falls into your lap ready-made, but usually it is the result of pausing, thinking, and looking for something better.

This issue came up in my current story when I had the children spring a trap set by a massive predator. They handled a small, white stick, which signaled the underlying beast to spring out of the earth! Originally I envisioned that stick as some strange, detached organ of the creature, like the light dangling at the end of an anglerfish…but then I realized that I was just taking the obvious example from nature, something that every reader would already be familiar with. That’s not very creative or interesting.

So I changed that in my last entry. I made it so that the small, white thing is a larva, and I stated that the beast used its own young as bait. In my next entry I will also add a detail about how the larva is planted into the beast’s prey, and then evolves that organism into a perfect copy of the original beast. Both of these changes required some deeper, outside-the-box thinking, but the result is far more entertaining!

The Listener)

A story that allowed itself to find the “better move” is the 1974 film The Conversation. In it, Harry Caul is a surveillance expert, who offers his services to record the private conversations of others. Harry is very efficient at his job, but also socially awkward, hearing the most intimate details of other peoples’ private lives, but never having a real connection of his own.

The film begins with him recording a young man and woman in a park, who are discussing another person—the woman’s husband—with worry. At one point the young man says “he’d kill us if he got the chance,” and it seems clear that the young couple is having an affair and are afraid of what might happen to them.

That woman’s husband is also the client that hired Caul to perform this investigation, and Caul is afraid to turn the recording in. At this point the obvious option would be for Caul to step up and become the hero. To use his knowledge to prevent catastrophe.

But the film wisely rejects that obvious path for a far more original plot. Caul doesn’t give the recording to his client, but neither does he warn the couple that the old man is on to them. He frets in between those choices, unable to bring himself to do anything decisive at all. Then the client has the recording stolen from Caul and his anxiety grows. He is convinced that violence is about to follow, but he is not powerful enough to intervene, and he has no concrete evidence to go to the authorities with.

Sustaining the tension like this required deliberate plotting on the part of the writer. It would have been far easier to fall off to one side or another, but instead it is stretched out all the way to the finale, and it makes the film relentlessly engrossing!

At the climax of the movie Caul goes to a hotel room that is adjacent to a private meeting the young woman is having with her husband. He has to know whether his suspicions are valid or exaggerated, and as he listens through a wiretap he hears the very murder he has been afraid of! He collapses to the ground, racked with guilt, and when he comes to, the deed is done and the killer has escaped.

Perhaps he is too late to save anybody, but at long last Caul decides to take a stand. He goes to confront his client, but once again the film’s writer has changed the obvious plot point for something far more engrossing. For much to Caul’s shock, he finds that his client is unavailable…because he is dead. Caul’s client was the one that was murdered at that private meeting, not the young wife. The wife is perfectly alive and well…and arm-in-arm with the young man from the park.

Suddenly the audience realizes that the truth was right there from the beginning. The obvious interpretation of what Caul heard at the start of the film was that the husband was going to kill his wife…but it was just as possible that the wife and the young man were plotting the murder of the husband instead. This clever reversal was not the result of random happenstance, it was the deliberate craft of a writer who took the time to steer away from the obvious “good ideas” and pushed instead for the truly sublime.

Check mate.

Force My Hand

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No More Hesitations)

Last week I considered the resistance that a main character must press through to achieve their greater story. Most protagonists are written so that they dearly want to follow that epic path, but they usually refuse to take the journey until they have no other choice.

Think of Luke Skywalker who dreams of leaving his farm to fly across the galaxy. He begs his Uncle Owen to let him follow that calling, but Uncle Owen just keeps telling him “next year.” Interestingly, when Obi-Wan Kenobi urges Luke to do the very things he has been yearning for, Luke draws back, repeating the same arguments that Uncle Owen has used to keep Luke grounded. Luke isn’t able to break free until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle and leaves his home a waste. Every other path in Luke’s life has been literally burned to the ground, so at last he moves forward with his greater story.

And this is true of many epics. The hero wants to step into their proper role, but for some reason holds back until their hand is forced.

Does a story have to be this way? No. There are plenty where it isn’t the case at all. Consider Forrest Gump, who blithely charges ahead with whatever occurs to him that he wants to do. Think of Pollyanna, who is never deterred by any problem, and always encourages those around her to just see the good in the world. There is also Ulysses, who though he is waylaid at every league of his journey never falters from start to finish in his quest to get back home.

But today I want to take a closer look at the archetype of the reluctant hero, and why it is such a widely use form.

My Own Delay)

Why do stories frequently make use of a reluctant hero? Because that’s exactly what most of us are in our own lives. We all have dreams of the greater story we’d like to live, but very few of us are actually chasing it. We watch it longingly from a distance, but feel too weighed down by work and duty to really get our hands into it.

That was certainly the case with me. I longed to be a writer for a long while, but it remained a wistful daydream for years,. I just couldn’t see any way to fit it into my busy schedule. Though let’s be honest, the excuse that we just don’t have enough time is usually a cover-up for something deeper. And in my case that was also true. I had been rejected in my creative endeavors before, I had been told that my work wasn’t very good or wasn’t very important. I didn’t like feeling that, so I made myself too busy to have time for writing anymore. The desire was still there, but I wasn’t able to break out of my reluctance by myself. In fact it took a literal act of God to finally get me back into my writing!

I previously mentioned the example of Luke Skywalker being reluctant to leave the farm with Obi-Wan Kenobi. And honestly, he isn’t given a very good reason for why he’s being so hesitant. In fact there are many stories which tack a reluctance onto their hero without any good explanation. Stories like this feel like me saying “oh, I don’t have time,” and I just don’t buy it. If an author decides to write a reluctant hero, they ought to give a clear reason for why that hero is being so hesitant.

A Reason to Not)

A better example is that of Peter Parker. In the original Spider-man comic strip, Peter is a bright and intelligent High Schooler, whose aunt and uncle and teachers dote on him. But he is scrawny, nerdy, and unpopular with all of his peers. He is the subject of bullying and mockery, which disillusions his view of the world.

When Peter Parker finds himself imbued with heroic powers he immediately thinks of how he can use them for profit. He enters into the ring and fights a mountain of a man, easily coming off the victor. This lands him a TV deal, and at long last it seems like his life is falling into place.

One day a thief is at the television studio and he makes off with some loot, running right past Peter Parker in his costume. An officer that is giving chase calls for Peter Parker to intervene, but Peter staunchly refuses. As he says “I’m thru being pushed around–by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one–that means–me!”

In other words, the bullies got to Peter. He hates the world and he doesn’t care about the people in it. The optimistic world view of his loving aunt and uncle has been overridden by cynicism and callousness. And now that he doesn’t need other people he’s perfectly content to watch out for himself and that’s it. He might be dressed up like a hero, but he has a solid reason in his heart to not actually play the role.

This is a much stronger depiction of the reluctant hero. It is relatable, it is believable, and it is tragic. At this point I am just as convinced as Peter Parker that he is never going to enter a more heroic story…unless fate intervenes.

Which, of course, it does. That same petty thief later corners Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben and guns him down. Because Peter had chosen not to be the hero, the man he loved and admired most was killed. Peter’s very good reasons for not sticking his neck out for anyone come crashing down, and in an instant and starts to care about what goes on in this crazy world around him. He steps into his role in the greater story.

Cace’s Hesitance)

In my own story I gave Cace a very simple reason for not continuing into the Ether: it seems like it is going to kill him! He is afraid for his life, and so the only thing that could possibly convince him to go back would be if his life was forfeit anyway. And as you will see on Wednesday, that’s exactly where the story is going. Cace is going to have to choose between death by the Ether or death by a monster. And given that, he will finally be motivated to dive back into the Ether, as it is the death-option that still has even a ray of hope. It also just so happens to be the one that his greater story lays within!

Breaking Through to Story

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Discouraged Efforts)

Last week I talked about “inciting moments,” where the protagonist commits to some cause, even though there is strong opposition to it. I mentioned that in my own story Cace was initially discouraged from exploring the Ether, but then felt he had to because of his promise to help save Rolar and Aylme.

And so, in the very next chapter, I began with Cace determinedly making his way back towards the Ether. This time he was testing his ability to call himself back after entering the trance and things did not go well. Tearing himself from that alternate reality did him serious, physical damage, enough that it could threaten his life if he continued forward. Thus Cace will be freshly discouraged from seeking out the Ether in the next chapter…at least until he gets pushed back into it again!

More Than Human)

There is a similar back-and-forth for the character of Clark Kent in the 2013 film Man of Steel. Clark is a native of Krypton, sent by parents he will never know to Earth. His father, Jor-El, knows that he will be a being of immense power, and hopes that his son will choose to lead the people of Earth into the light.

But when Clark arrives, he falls under the care of a farmer, Jonathan Kent, who is a far more reserved father, fearful of what the world will do to his son if they discover his powers. So Jonathan urges Clark to keep his supernatural abilities hidden, though on occasion Clark defies those instructions, always feeling compelled to intervene when others are in trouble.

Then Clark gets an even more powerful deterrent when Jonathan finds his own life endangered. Clark wants to save him, but they are in a public place and Jonathan commands his son to not intervene, giving up his life rather than his son’s secret. Though Jonathan is gone, Clark is weighed by the magnitude of the man’s sacrifice. He becomes an aimless drifter, occasionally using his powers for good, but always anonymously, disappearing from each place as soon as he shows a glimmer of what he can really do.

Then, fate intervenes. An alien menace threatens mankind if Clark Kent doesn’t turn himself in. There is no way to quietly and peacefully keep his existence a secret anymore. Either he abandons humanity to their destruction, or he steps out in front for all to see. Clark wrestles with the decision, but ultimately chooses the latter, becoming the hero Superman.

The entire first half of the film is taken up with Clark’s struggle. He has powerful reasons to assume his heroic identity and he has powerful reasons not to. Of course he was always going to choose to fully unfurl his powers at some point or another, though, for that is where the story is. If Jonathan Kent had had his way, the story that needed to be told would never be.

Hakuna Matata)

Something similar happens in Disney’s the Lion King after Simba runs away from his home and is taken under the wing of laid-back duo Timon and Pumbaa. Simba is heir to a throne, born to be a powerful king, but right now he is weighed down by shame and absent a father to protect him. To his fears and insecurities comes the soothing philosophy of his new friends: “hakuna matata” which means to just not worry about things anymore.

Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba how to live the carefree life, giving up his duties and identity for indolence. Years pass and Simba believes that his past is gone forever, but there are hints that his heart is discontent with this. He is avoiding his greater story and he knows it. When his childhood friend Nala finds him and tries to stir him back to action he resists, repeating the carefree philosophy he has come to live by. But then he receives a message from his dead father, calling him out for having given up his true identity, and this finally convinces him to act.

Timon and Pumbaa may have meant well, but just like Jonathan Kent they were blocking Simba from his true story. What is the same in both Clark Kent and Simba is that each of them is discontent with their lesser life, but they are also unwilling to stir themselves from it by themselves. Each of them has to be disrupted in some way and have those story-blocking walls broken for them. For Clark this is by the alien invasion and for Simba it is by the appearance of his father’s ghost.

Get the Message Through)

In the story Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean must have his wall broken by several incidents in succession. For after 19 years of hard labor he has been firmly converted to the image of himself as a convict, and it is not an easy thing for him to accept a role in any larger story.

First a kindly priest looks beyond the titles of “convict” and shares food and lodging with the man. Valjean is touched, but not yet fully disrupted. He wakes up, steals the silver, and knocks the priest on the head when discovered!

The next day he is found with the stolen goods, arrested, and brought back to the priest. Instead of condemning him, the priest orders him to be set free and gives him even more silver. He stresses to Jean that he is a new man now, purchased, reclaimed, and set upon a new story.

Jean Valean is deeply moved this time, and in most film and theatrical adaptations finally accepts a reformed life. In the original novel, though, there is one more incident where he starts to go back to his thieving ways, before recoiling in horror and fully committing to his higher calling. In any case, he does finally break his old walls and enters his greater story.

Cace’s Change)

In my story I had Aylme discourage Cace from visiting the Ether, but then when he saw Rolar in danger he recommitted himself to it. Now with my last chapter I have given him a stronger discouragement when he encountered real, physical danger in the Ether. This, of course, means that there must now be an even stronger push to go back. This next push will be the one that gets him through permanently, fully entered into his larger story. Come back on Wednesday to see how I deliver it.

That’s So Inciting!

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Coming to a Decision)

I ended the last chapter of Covalent with the main character coming to an important decision. Previously Cace had been scolded by Aylme for his visits to the Ether. She felt these excursions were too dangerous and asked him to stop taking them. He never actually agreed to stop, but it was clear that he respected her and wouldn’t betray her wishes lightly.

This thread was interrupted, though, when the two children discovered Rolar, passed out at nearly dead from a strange intoxication. It was a traumatic experience, and all of the children were shaken until Rolar soothed them with the promise that so long as they kept watching out for each other, they would never fail. Rolar pledged to fight for Aylme and Cace, and Aylme for Cace and Rolar.

With that Cace came to the decision I mentioned earlier. He decided that he would fight for the other two as well, and that meant going back to the Ether and solving its secrets. To do his part to save the others he would just have to defy Aylme’s instructions.

Having this scene of Rolar’s endangerment was important, because I didn’t want Cace to just shrug off Aylme’s request. I made his determination be the result of an intense need so that the audience could agree with what he was doing.

The Gunslinger)

That’s the way things work in the 1953 film Shane as well. The overall plot of this movie is very simple: a retired gunslinger comes to a new town, trying to find a peaceful life. He starts to care for the people there, and when those people are threatened he sets aside his peaceful ways to gun down the villain, then rides away.

Shane doesn’t want to fight, but in the end he does fight. Of course the movie could have forced him into the fight in the first five minutes, but then there wouldn’t have been any story. The story is in how powerful forces pull at him, he resists for a time, but ultimately must give in.

First the man he is staying with, Joe Starrett, tells him how a cattle baron, Ryker, is trying to force all the homesteaders off their legal land. He hears the stories…but does nothing about it. Then he is insulted in town by Ryker’s men, they pour a drink on him and try to egg him into a fight…but he does nothing about it. He and Joe Starrett later get into a brawl with that cattle baron’s men, but still he keeps his guns sheathed. Another rancher, Torrey, is taunted into a fight and gunned down in the street by another gunslinger Ryker has hired…but still Shane does nothing about it.

But then, finally, a trap is set for Joe Starrett, and it becomes clear that sooner or later Ryker must die or Joe will…and Shane knows that it will be Joe. This, at last, is a cross he is not willing to bear. This, at last, make Shane decide to become the gunslinger once more. Like Cace, his decision is brought about at the moment of highest intensity so that the audience will approve his decision.

But where this would be the inciting incident of most westerns, it is the concluding one in Shane. After Shane finally makes his decision there is only one scene left and the movie is over. It is less a story of what the man does than of what finally gets him to do it.

In the Middle)

The Big Country does things differently from Shane, but also differently from other westerns. In this 1958 Western, sailor James McKay arrives in Texas to marry the daughter of the powerful ranch owner and cattle baron Major Henry Terrill.

No sooner does McKay arrive than he is hazed by a group of local ruffians, led by Buck Hannassey. This offense is the inciting incident of the movie. The Terrills hear of it and immediately set off to even the score with the rival Hannassey family. McKay, though, is strictly opposed to the whole thing. He’s frankly too honorable of a man to care about a few drunks being rowdy. He doesn’t condone their behavior, but he came to no serious harm, and he knows that retaliation will only lead to escalated violence.

And so McKay’s unwillingness to be incited against the Hannasseys creates a rift between him and the Terrills instead. Bit by bit he becomes disillusioned with them, including with the daughter he had been intending to marry. He starts a campaign to protect both of the feuding families, including the Hannasseys, which offends the Terrills deeply and McKay calls off the wedding and leaves the ranch. McKay then watches as an outsider while the two families continue their downward spiral, until they meet in a ravine and finally kill each other.

The hazing that occurred at the beginning of the film incited the families to violence, but McKay’s arc is one of standing firm against that pull, rejecting every reason to contribute to the senseless killing. Throughout the picture he does fight when necessary to defend himself and others, but then he moves on, never getting caught up in the vengeance spiral of the others.

Contrary Notions)

McKay came to a determination, just as Shane did, and just as Cace did. And the similar theme in all of them is that they are in opposition to what other people want, or even what they personally want. This is what gives the inciting moment its impact, it is a forceful declaration against outward influence or inward hesitation. It is breaking free to do what must be done, not what is wanted to be done. This opposition inherently causes drama, which is the lifeblood of every story, the very reason why the story is told.

And I will be leaning into that drama with Covalent. Of course Cace’s determination to travel into the Ether is going to be a point of escalating contention between him and Aylme, and even within himself. But whether he and she or Rolar wants him to or not, it is what he must do, he has been incited into it.

Bits of Thread

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Keeping Secrets)

Last Wednesday I integrated world-building into my latest story in a subtle way. It began with the boy, Cace, being angry at the girl, Aylme. Cace is trying to have a heated argument with her and she calmly refuses to answer his queries until he “tips his lamp.” This is an unfamiliar expression to my readers, but it becomes clear when Cace takes a literal lamp and pours some glowing essence out of it. As he does so his emotions calm to a more rational state.

And I don’t try to explain that. I leave it to the audience to work out that the children’s passions are somehow tied to these lamps, and by physically pouring them out they can calm their own moods.

Why? Frankly I don’t think it matters. What does this imply about the world? Definitely something, but I won’t waste my time trying to answer that.

Knowing that these lamps exist and are tied to the emotions of the children is important for evoking the sort of mystical world I want. But anything beyond that won’t actually help with appreciating the drama between those children.

A little bit later I made a statement in passing that was also meant to give color to the children and their situation:

It was a perpetual dusk in this place, and the children refugees had absolutely no notion of how many days had actually passed since they arrived.

There’s that one standout word: refugees. So these children are on the run from somewhere? But why? Was there a war? A famine? What happened to their families?

All fair questions, and some of this will be explored in later chapters, but only enough to raise more questions and very few answers. Because I want for this world to feel mysterious. I want the reader to not understand everything. I want them to understand that these children are in trouble, that they are fighting to survive, and that their emotions are heavily strained…but once they understand those facts then I am ready to tell my story, and I won’t go backwards to explain things that aren’t directly part of that.

Killing the Magic)

This is a topic that I have touched on before. When I was writing Raise the Black Sun I addressed the fact that some story elements were being implied and not fully spelled out. At the time I made the argument that this approach allowed for the world to seem far more complex, as if it was composed of a thousand folds, of which we only saw the occasional ruffle. It created a sense that the world went too deep for me to have words to describe it all, so I just had to limit myself to the surface elements and leave the rest to the imagination.

All my life I have loved stories that do exactly this, and I have been frustrated at the current trend of franchises that explore backstories that never needed to be elaborated on.

Take the character of Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance. When audiences first met the man in 1977 he was a cynical drifter, making his way through life with little regard for destination or greater purpose. He got involved with the heroes just to make a quick buck and rolled his eyes at their belief in something bigger than themselves.

This cynicism of his is established right away in his opening scene, and to help convey that personality the scene is also peppered with references that we never get the full explanation of. He did the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? What’s that? He lost a shipment and has a price on his head? What happened there? And what’s with his furry companion? How did they end up together?

Frankly none of that matters and the film wisely avoids delving into it. It is only used to establish a character with an implied past, and from there it moves forward, not backward. This isn’t supposed to be a movie about everything that makes Han Solo tick, its supposed to be about the Force awakening in a young man and a Rebel Alliance challenging a mighty Empire.

But then, of course, Star Wars became a multi-billion-dollar franchise. Fans fell in love with the universe and along with it the character of Han Solo. And, unfortunately, these days it seems that any beloved character has to have their entire backstory filled out. Thus, three years ago we received Solo, a film dedicated to answering all of those unimportant questions about the character. We found out what the Kessel run is and how Han Solo was involved in it. We learned the origins of his relationship with Chewbacca and Lando. We saw how he came to possess his famous ship the Millennium Falcon. We even discovered answers to questions we had never had, such as the origin of his surname “solo.”

And you know what? It wasn’t a very satisfying experience. Because these elements were never meant to be the foundation of a feature-length film. A story of how a person meets people and gets his name and ship just isn’t as compelling as a story about rebels defying an empire and the unveiling of a mystical power. Backstory really isn’t story, it’s just information. It’s great for a “did you know?” fact book, but not for a film or novel.

What is a Story?)

At the end of the day, a story is supposed to be more than just facts or information. It will undoubtedly divulge facts and information along its way, but they do not define what the story itself is.

At its core a story is about an interesting situation and how that situation is resolved. That’s what makes a story a story, and that is true for Covalent. The situation is that there are three refugee children struggling to survive in a mystical forest, and I employed some interesting facts to help establish that situation. But now those facts have served their purpose and will not be dwelled on further. Instead I will dwell on the actual story, which is about how the children either reach their liberation or their demise. Come back on Wednesday as we pursue that question further.