A Tale of Two Tales

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Quick Summary)

During September and October I published a story which was titled The Favored Son. It was not the same as the story I am currently writing now, though, which is titled The Favored Son: Alternate.

Both of these stories began in a very similar manner. Both featured a group of students in an order, which eventually was overrun by an invasion. Both of them featured a battle of wills between the different students as each tried to champion their own way forward.

But as I mentioned at the time, my first take on this story strayed a great deal from my original vision. About halfway through it evolved into an entirely different beast from what I had pictured in my head.

If you have been reading the second version you can certainly see that the style and plot have many drastic differences from the first. So now let me answer whether this second attempt has hewed more closely to my original idea or not.

It has. Like a lot. This new incarnation is very much in the vein of my original concept. Yes, a few things have changed as I’ve gone along, but not any more than is to be expected whenever a vague concept is written into a hard reality. So if you have read the first version of The Favored Son, now you should be able to understand why I felt there were several ideas being left on the table!

Is it Better This Way?)

Now that I have both the free-flowing-exploration-into-the-unknown version and the more stick-to-the-plan version, the natural question is which am I happier with the result of. The answer to that is a bit mixed.

On one hand, they really are just very different tales that do different things well. There are things that I appreciate about both and I wouldn’t want to be without either. On the other hand, I can’t help but appreciate that this newer attempt was more successful at capturing my intended vision. Yes, the other one took me into fresh material that I value, but I feel more competent as a writer with the second attempt because it was a better execution of being what I wanted it to be.

Technically speaking, I would also say that my second attempt is more complex. There are more characters, more relationships, more arcs, and I am pleased with how they are all being given full expression.

Imaginatively speaking, though, I would say the first version had the more exciting ideas.

Obviously I mean this in terms of having a more involved magic system and a more surprising world to explore, but also in having more dramatic ideas, such as the order’s ritualistic self-destruction and characters being literally taken over by despair. There was a lot of creativity crammed into that tale.

But given all that bursting creativity is it any wonder that the plot went off track?

Lost in the Details)

I really do think it was all this deluge of ideas that caused me to lose the thread of my plot in the first version of The Favored Son. I came up with one imaginative idea after another. I included them without a second thought, and in the process of exploring their implications I realized that I had built a foundation that the original story wouldn’t fit on anymore.

It has to be appreciated that this is a package deal. How can you fully explore a new concept unless you are willing to surrender some control for where things are going to go with it? There is a trade-off in writing between discovering something new and meeting your original expectation.

On the one hand, by focusing on plot and character first and foremost in my second version of The Favored Son I had a more solid foundation, a better story at its core. And having that foundation I could now dress it up with all manner of rich world-building that I please. I could take all of the more magical elements of the first version and easily apply them throughout.

But on the other hand…how would I even know about those magical elements if I hadn’t allowed myself to get lost first?

Clearly there is a benefit to both approaches. I’m actually very glad that I decided to write both versions, if only to have discovered this fact. You can have freedom in your writing or you can have structure. Or, if you allow for each separately, then you can combine them together and have both. You can make an excursion into the unknown and discover all manner of raw, creative material, and then you can set down at the desk and compile it into a deliberate, crafted plot.

If it weren’t for the fact that I have already spent months on these stories and am ready for a change of scenery, I would consider now writing a third version of The Favored Son, one that marries the two previous attempts in the way I have described. I may still try it at some later date.

Here’s what I will do for now, though. I am about to write the climax of my second version, and I will try to inject into it some of the magic from my first attempt. Keep your eye out for that on Thursday!

Watch Your Back!

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With Friends Like These)

Brutus has a problem in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is good friends with the titular character…but he is also deeply opposed to the man and all he represents! The historical backdrop of the play is that Rome was run as a republic for centuries until Julius Caesar put down all of his foes, domestic and abroad, and is now on the precipice of ruling as a dictator. Brutus is sickened by this totality of power, convinced that the republic was the morally correct form of government. As Brutus later tells the masses, he loves Julius Caesar but he loves Rome more.

And to that end he joins forces with Caesar’s enemies. Together they hatch a plot to assassinate their leader and Brutus is instrumental in laying the trap for his own friend. Things unfold until we come to a pivotal scene on the steps of the senate. Suddenly the assassins draw out concealed blades and stab their leader one at a time! Last of all comes Brutus to finish the job.

And then Julius Caesar says something that immediately shifts us from Brutus’s perspective to his own.

“Et tu, Brute?” which simply means “you too, Brutus?”

Who knew that three words could pack so much of pain and betrayal? In this moment there is little to do with politics and greater goods and saving the Republic. In this moment there is just one friend being killed by another.

Even though Caesar has been shown as a pompous and deeply flawed character, even though the arguments for his death have been presented in a very sound and convincing manner, one cannot help but be moved by pity for the man in this very moment.

This, we understand, is what it really means to betray another.

Snakes of History and Scripture)

And it’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between Julius Caesar and Brutus was by no means a fabrication of Shakespeare. The two of them really did have a powerful bond, much like that of a father and son. Indeed there are some that theorize Brutus may have actually been Caesar’s bastard child! But even if not, Caesar was still a very paternal figure in Brutus’s life.

It is important to remember that fiction has its basis in fact. The idea of a betrayal is so dramatically interesting and has been incorporated into so many stories, that one can lose sight of the fact that it is not merely a work of fiction. Every romanticized story of a traitor has its roots in the soil of history.

Consider Benedict Arnold, the powerful general who led the fledgling United States to a number of decisive victories in the Revolutionary War. But after advancing the Revolution in such an instrumental way he did not feel appropriately recognized by his comrades. For their negligence he became bitter and ultimately threw in with the British against his former allies!

There is also Robert Ford, who was enamored with the outlaw Jesse James and eventually joined his gang. A wild life of freedom came at a heavy cost, though, and Ford learned the great burden of being a wanted man. One-by-one the gang’s numbers were whittled down until Ford was one of the few people James still felt he could trust. He brought Ford into his own house and fed him from his own table. And all the while Ford was tempted by the $10,000 reward and full pardon that were promised to the man who brought in Jesse James’s dead body. There, in James’ own living room, Ford picked up a gun and shot his hero in the back of head.

The scriptures are full of betrayal as well. There is Joseph who had his precious coat torn apart, was cast into a pit, and sold into Egypt by his very own brothers! To be fair, they did stop just short of killing him, unlike Cain, who out-and-out slew his own brother Abel. Jacob connived Esau into selling away his birthright, and then took his blessing by deception. Then, of course, there is the matter of Judas, who walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and still sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Even Lucifer is described by Isaiah as a “son of the morning,” a great angel in the courts of God, but he sought to overthrow his Maker and was cast down to earth as a traitor.

The Tendency to Betray)

Betrayals for money. Betrayals for political gain. Betrayals for ideology. Betrayals for jealousy. Betrayals for spite.

Betrayals against the state. Betrayals against friendship. Betrayals against one’s own family. Betrayals against God.

The fact is treachery is in our DNA. When we humans are given with the chance to lift ourselves upon the bones of another…we pause and give it serious consideration. And if we expand our scope to less fatal acts of betrayal, we can see that the vast majority of us have already been traitors in one way or another.

We cheat on our romantic partners, we let our siblings take the fall for our naughty behavior, we tell the secrets of a friend, we steal another’s possessions, we let down those that trust us. At every level of love, family, and society we find ways to trade those who matter most for our own gain. And even those who do not give in to the temptation are still tempted. Our animalistic instinct is to choose ourselves.

Preparation)

At their worst, stories present so many examples of betrayal that we start to think it is the common destiny of us all. At their best they alert us to the reality of our own shortcomings so that we can prepare against them.

Stories show us the best and the worst, and in between they let us choose our own role to play. We get to decide if we are Boromir clutching for the ring of power or if we are Sam refusing to leave our friend’s side. Do we identify with Fernand Mondego betraying a rival to steal the woman he loves, or with Edmond Dantès who will swallow his revenge to spare her added grief? Within the spectrum of story there is a place for us all.

In my own story I have revealed that Reis is also a traitor to his own order. Now Tharol must come to terms with it and decide how he will respond. Will he meet that treachery with a betrayal of his own? Come back on Thursday to find out.

We’ve All Been There

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Delicious Awkwardness)

There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Cho Chang are at a café in the wizarding town of Hogsmeade. Harry, of course, has a crush on Cho and is hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. As they sit together at the table he starts to tell himself that he should reach out and hold her hand.

A few more minutes passed in total silence, Harry drinking his coffee so fast that he would soon need a fresh cup....
Cho's hand was lying on the table beside her coffee, and Harry was feeling a mounting pressure to take hold of it. Just do it, he told himself, as a fount of mingled panic and excitement surged up inside his chest. Just reach out and grab it. . . Amazing how much more difficult it was to extend his arm twelve inches and touch her hand than to snatch a speeding Snitch from midair...
But just as he moved his hand forward, Cho took hers off the table.

Seeing or reading about a character’s awkward discomfort often gets a visceral reaction from the audience. Seeing smiling faces has a chance to make you feel happy and frowns could possibly make you sad, but watching someone squirm in a socially painful situation seems guaranteed to turn your own insides as well.

This is because most of us who read about Harry’s internal struggle are immediately brought back to similar moments in our own life. All of us who have dated can share experiences of such times where we felt paralyzed between the excitement of potential success and the horror of potential rejection. Whether to hold a hand, or put an arm around the shoulders, or to lean in for a kiss, we’ve all been there, and this evocative scene immediately taps into those personal emotions.

Imagined Heroics)

Of course there are other stories that go as far away from these relatable moments of ordinary life as possible. They don’t dwell on typical social dramas, they project amazing power fantasies instead!

Consider the scene near the end of the first Matrix film where Neo and Trinity storm the building that Morpheus is being held captive in. Clad in black leather, hair slicked back, shades permanently affixed to their faces they stride past the security checkpoint like they own the place.

A team of heavily armored guards rush out to meet them with shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. Guns are whipped out, techno music kicks into high gear, and we are treated to a scene of exorbitant action! Neo and Trinity are flipping off of walls, rubble and smoke fills the air, baddies drop like dominos. This is not a duel between evenly matched forces, it is a scene of total domination!

The whole thing is entirely over-the-top and absolutely nothing like real life. Of course no one could relate to a scene like this!

Except that yeah, I totally did.

I mean, no, never in my life have I ever been a situation remotely like this, but long before I saw this scene I had already been rehearsing moments just like it in my head. And I’m far from the only one.

This scene landed so powerfully with audiences because it tapped into the power fantasies that each of us hold in our private moments. We love to imagine a problem that calls for a new hero to enter, us. We arrive on one the scene looking the very epitome of cool, and then cut the baddies down left and right with our ridiculously overpowered arsenal.

The scene in The Matrix might ring entirely false in the “real world,” but it is very, very true in the imagined one. Some scenes can be relatable in how they capture the nuances of ordinary life, and some in how they capture the nuances of deepest desire.

Somewhere In Between)

The painfully awkward and the power fantasy. Must a story choose one style of relatability over the other? Is it possible to be both grounded and fantastic?

The 2011 film Moneyball is a sports film that feels far more true-to-life than most other sports films. It is about the business of baseball, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of managers trying to synergize the perfect roster. It is about budgets and algorithms.

Thus it is a very grounded take on the sport and it is filled with all manner of down-to-earth, understated, totally relatable scenes. Take for example when the film develops the relationship between the main character and his daughter. They are both in a guitar store and he is trying to coax her to play a little song for him. She’s nervous because they’re in public, but with a little encouragement she recites a few simple lines from a song.

It’s one of very few scenes in the entire film that the main character shows strong emotion, nearly brought to tears at the delight of seeing his daughter just doing what she loves. It’s a moment both small and large, both mundane and fantastic.

Furthermore, the entire film is all about that main character trying to make something of substance by very simple, deliberate means. Each scene by itself seems of little consequence, advancing goals by only the tiniest of margins, immediately relatable to the slow march we perceive in our own lives. But by the end of the film something truly special comes to fruition, immediately relatable to the hope we each have that our slow and steady march is leading to somewhere grand. Both the mundanity of real life and the fantasy of our deepest desires are fully represented.

Mundane Fantasies)

In my current story I have been trying to take the opposite approach to Moneyball. Rather than adding mundane moments until they become a fantasy, I have begun with a fantasy setting tried to fill it with mundane moments.

I showed this last time where the two main character discussed conspiracies while chopping firewood and where the main character’s moment of boldness was just to grab a paper without being seen by another. Important things are happening, but they’re intentionally being couched in basic moments of life.

Of course as things continue the fantastic will win out, but hopefully even then it will be in a way that remains relatable to our private fantasies. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of The Favored Son to see how I pursue that goal.

Missing Shots

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The Original Plot)

I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was dramatically altering the final act of The Favored Son. The original version of it just didn’t feel right there weren’t any minor change that would fix it, so I just rewrote the entire thing.

So where did that change take place? Well, it remained the same through Tharol breaking his leg at the end of the second competition, and also through his finding out that several of the students assume he has lost his conscience.

But after this point my current version and the original split apart. In today’s version the next scene is Tharol having a conversation where Reis emboldens him to lean into his “bad guy” role. In the original version he instead discovered that Reis was conversing with the strange statue lady at this point. He saw Reis exiting the parapets with the Order’s pet hawk on his shoulder, he walked out onto the parapet himself, he looked over the grounds, and suddenly he saw the statue lady’s bodyguard sprinting from the city walls with a letter held firmly in hand. A letter presumably carried to him by a bird!

Dun dun dunnnnhh!

Upstaged by Self)

Actually not so dun dun dunnnnhh. This revelation felt very tepid, and this was the main reason for scrapping my work.

This twist just felt incredibly weak compared to the rest of the story. Consider, for example, the earlier scene where the boys are in their second competition and Reis reveals that he swapped a fake crystal with Tharol. That twist was far more clever and far more satisfying. Even though readers were told to expect some trickery, I imagine that most still wouldn’t have seen that particular maneuver coming.

But this scene of Tharol realizing that Reis is in communication with the statue lady? It just sort of…happened. There wasn’t any real suspense leading up to it, there wasn’t anything particular clever to how he figured it out, he literally just stumbled into the revelation by accident.

And the thing is, I knew that this was a weak twist even when I first wrote it, but I didn’t have anything better to replace it with. It was the first thing that popped into my head and I wrote it down as a placeholder. I kept expecting to have some epiphany for how to improve on it…but nothing else came.

And just so you know, I write placeholder stuff like this in my outlines all the time, hoping that I’ll be able to find a better solution before it comes time to deliver. And usually I do. In fact Reis swapping the crystals during the second competition is an example of where this method worked perfectly! In my outline I originally just wrote “some trick should happen at this point,” and trusted myself to figure it out when I got there. That’s exactly what happened and it was incredibly satisfying. But when I tried to use this same method for my bigger reveal?…Nothing.

Eventually I decided I had to just take the weak plot point as it was and move on. I set it in stone, wrote several other chapters on top of it, and very nearly published things that way.

Time to Deliver)

Like I said, usually I’m able to come up with richer plot devices to replace my initial placeholders, but each of us will occasionally miss our shot no matter how proficient we usually are at making them.

Literally, in some cases.

Paul Millsap is a current player in the NBA and a four-time All-Star. He is able to play the game at a very high level. On November 15, 2015, his team, the Atlanta Hawks, were playing against the Utah Jazz. With 3.8 seconds remaining the Hawks were down 97-96, but found themselves with a chance to make a basket and win the game. The ball was bounced in to Paul Millsap, he expertly sidestepped his defender, pulled back, jumped up, and sent off a beautiful shot. There was no other player to obstruct his view, no one in position to swat his shot out of the air, and he was at an excellent angle to make full use of the backboard. It was a very easy basket to make. The sort of basket that Millsap makes all the time.

But he missed, and the Atlanta Hawks lost the game.

And this is not rare occurrence. Every season in every sport there are numerous instances of an athlete stepping up to a shot they’ve made a thousand times before and still missing it. Because at the end of the day none of us are perfect at making our shot. All we can do is increase our percentage chance of hitting our mark but it never becomes a 100% guaranteed thing. When I took a shot with Reis’s betrayal during the boys’ second competition I scored a hit, but when I tried again for his alliance with the statue lady I just came up short.

Endings and New Beginnings)

And this certainly happens in the broader world of storytelling, too. I’m sure we can all recall stories that begin with an excellent premise, but then fail to cash in on that potential with their final act. I believe that many of these misfires are simply due to the author being faced with a hard deadline. In those situations no matter how well you’ve trained yourself for a high percentage chance of success, sooner or later you’re going to slip and deliver something that is beneath your standard.

Fortunately for me, I write my stories a few weeks in advance, which affords me the chance to take a second shot at things.

Two weeks after writing that weak twist I found myself able to view the trouble-area with fresh eyes. I realized a new direction I could take the story in. It would mean scrapping most of what I had been writing ever since, but ultimately I decided it would be worth it. I made the change, published it, and the story you have been reading ever since is the result of that transition. I truly feel that my story is much stronger with this new direction.

Hopefully this little peek behind the curtain has been helpful for you. At the very least I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that:

  1. Everybody misses. We might reduce the frequency of those misses but they will always still happen.
  2. Failure truly isn’t the end of the story. So long as you keep writing you’ll be able to take that shot again. And chances are you’ll make it that time.

On Thursday I’ll be publishing the next chapter of The Favored Son. At the end I’ll also be revealing a little more of how this version varies from the original. Come back then to see what you think of the differences!

That’s So Cliché

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Let’s Make a Bad Guy)

Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.

And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.

Let’s Make a Good Guy)

Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.

But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.

Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.

Shortcuts in Communication)

The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.

Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?

Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.

Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.

“Hey, good morning.”

“Good morning. How are you?”

“Doing well. And you and your family?”

“All doing well, thanks for asking.”

“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”

“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”

“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”

“Definitely. Well, see ya!”

There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.

Stories Should Say Something)

And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”

To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.

Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.

The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.

I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.

The Shape of Change

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The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

The Lonely Hero

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Training Wheels)

Angels in the Outfield features a team and a coach that are all washed up, the disappointment of every fan who still believes in them. Then, in both the 1951 original and 1994 remake, the team starts receiving some divine assistance. Unseen angels interfere slightly, ensuring that a missed catch makes its way back into the mitt, an inexperienced batter finally gets a hit, and a pitcher’s wide throw curves back into the strike zone. The team starts to make some real progress, putting one win after another under their belt, until–to everyone’s great shock–they find themselves playing for the league pennant!

And in that game, the angels don’t show up.

It is explained that some contests have to be won on their own. And so the team tries to go it without the angels…and discover that they have what it takes! This whole last season they haven’t just been being handed victories by the angels, they have been being coached by them into discovering their natural potential. The angels were only training wheels until they could ride on their own, and in the end the team does win the pennant!

And really this does seem to be the fairest outcome. If the team had won the championship with the angels’ continued intervention it would have felt like cheating. In the end they needed to show that they could earn it, they needed to prove that they’re worthy of the advantage they had been given.

You see this same concept in The Edge of Tomorrow, later rebranded as Live. Die. Repeat. In this film Major William Cage is imbued with the unique ability to reset each day whenever he dies. This comes in very handy because he is in the middle of a war between human forces and invading aliens. Any time the battle gets out of hand and he dies, he simply wakes up before the fight, ready to try it again.

Slowly he fights his way through the enemy lines and follows a series of clues until he finds where the alien leader is located. This entity controls all of the other aliens, and taking it out would rid the invasion once and for all.

But then, of course, Cage loses his all-important ability. He receives a blood transfusion while unconscious which has the side effect that he cannot reset the day if things go wrong anymore. Not only this, but the army doesn’t believe his intel, so he and his team are going to have to strike at the heart of the enemy territory alone. They’ll have just one shot, and if they fail it really is game over for good.

Once again, this setup just feels the most fair. It gives real weight to the final encounter and it lets Cage and his team prove to the audience that they have what it takes all on their own. It shows that they don’t require a crutch anymore.

Discover Your Own Power)

Let’s consider a little more this idea of a hero standing without a crutch and learning for themselves that they have what it takes.

Consider the example of Aladdin in the Disney animated film. At the outset we see that he his a wily trickster, able to wriggle his way out of every tight spot. Throughout the course of the film, though, he comes to depend on the power of others instead; specifically the acrobatics of a flying carpet and the wish-granting abilities of a magic genie. He uses these to redefine himself and assumes the pretended role of a prince.

Eventually this impostor lifestyle leads him into trouble, though, and an evil vizier named Jafar manages to gain power over Aladdin. Bit-by-bit, all of the crutches Aladdin has come to depend on are taken away. The genie is enslaved to Jafar, the magic carpet is reduced to threads, and even his pet monkey Abu is turned into a toy. Suddenly Aladdin finds himself all alone, with no one to count on but himself.

And there, in that moment, he remembers himself. He is a trickster, not a pompous prince. And so he does what he does best: he cons Jafar into his own demise. It works, but Aladdin had to lose all of his support first to find the right way forward.

The Will to Do)

Another major reason for making a hero stand alone is to show that they are the only one who is able to do what has to be done. All of the Mission: Impossible films surround Ethan Hunt with a team of operatives, but at the end there is always one last battle that he has to fight alone. And it’s not because he doesn’t want to have his team working with him, it’s because they literally can’t keep up with his pace. He’s the only one standing against the end of the world because he’s the only one who can get there in time.

And sometimes it isn’t a matter of the hero being the only one physically capable of rising to the occasion, but being the only one who has the right motivation to do so.

In Glory, Colonel Robert Shaw is assigned command over the first black regiment in the American Civil War. Things aren’t very smooth between these men and their commanding officers, though. Years of oppression have raised a strong resentment in the slaves for any white leader, and on a few occasions they are given reason to be cynical of the Union’s promises. Colonel Shaw must even make decisions against his own men at times, in order to keep them from falling under the control of worse commanders.

Even so, Shaw’s pledge to lead and vouch for his men is sincere. His constant campaigning leads them to being taken seriously by the rest of the Union army and they are given chances to prove their valor on the field. This escalates in the final act when the regiment volunteers to lead the charge against a heavily defended fort.

Here the process of heroic isolation begins. First they march out from the rest of the army, proceeding alone to the assault. Then all the horses and drummer boys are sent away, unnecessary casualties that Colonel Shaw would rather avoid. Then the charge begins and one man after another is gunned down the closer they come to their target.

Eventually the opposition becomes to great, and they come to a stop, too petrified to make the last charge up the walls of the fort. Colonel Shaw tries to rally his men but they refuse to push up. There simply isn’t anything for them to believe in enough to face that last, great hurdle.

So he goes it alone. Sufficiently motivated by his vision of a better future he takes the charge against the enemy himself. And then, when he is gunned down, his regiment catches the fire of his sacrifice and finishes the charge.

There is nothing as heroic as a hero standing alone. It shows that true heroes are pioneers, the ones who are willing to go and do what no one else can or will. In the last chapter of The Favored Son I also made my main character stand alone. In his case it was not towards triumph, though, it was to a bitter defeat.

As I come towards the end of the tale, though, his triumph will ultimately be revealed. And it will be a very lonely one. Come back on Thursday as I drive the wedge between him and his friends still deeper, and pay attention to all the different ways I am trying to isolate him before the grand conclusion.

Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.

“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.

Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”

‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!

Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!

Flip the Script)

In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.

One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.

The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.

And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.

Drama, character, and passion. All of these combine to make this less a scene of action as a scene of catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are utilizing those elements as a very effective portrayal of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.

Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.

The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.

This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.

Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.

It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.

Variety in Communication)

It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.

In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.

This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.

Read My Lips

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Friends No More)

There is a scene in A Man For All Seasons where Thomas More must end his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk. Not because he dislikes the man–quite the contrary!–but to protect him. Right now being a friend of Thomas More is becoming a very dangerous proposition, and the last thing Thomas wants is for someone to be hurt for his sake.

You see King Henry is divorcing his first wife to marry another, which the church has historically labeled an immoral act. One-by-one, though, the most prominent minds weigh in to support the change of wives, as they are more concerned with protecting their lives and their stations than coming out in open defiance of the king.

Thomas More will not, though. He does not vocally speak against the divorce, but neither will he speak for it. And in his continued silence all his peers read his true opinions. An entire game is made up to force him to disclose his mind and More can feel the noose tightening around him at every turn.

And to be sure, he is ready to die for his conscience’s sake–quite literally as we see in the final act–but he does not want to be the death of anyone else along the way. And so, as I said, he has to get rid of his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk.

Interestingly, he comes to this realization while in conversation with the Duke, and even spells out that reasoning to him in plain terms. The Duke brushes it off, thinking it stupid for them to have a fake quarrel.

So then Thomas More really sets in to him:

MORE: You and your class have "given in"-as you rightly call it-because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other... The nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount. But you'll labor like Thomas Aquinas over a rat-dog's pedigree. 
Now what's the name of those distorted creatures you're all breeding at the moment? What's the name of those dogs? Marsh mastiffs? Bog beagles?
NORFOLK: Water spaniels!
MORE: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You'd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. As you stand, you'll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! And he'll have to think that somewhere back along your pedigree-a bitch got over the wall!

And then the Duke of Norfolk tries to clobber him! Because Thomas More is not fabricating a quarrel as the Duke had predicted, he is cutting loose on all of the genuine frustration he has towards his friend. Not only towards his friend, but to all the nobles that are denying their own principles. Perhaps he doesn’t want anyone else to die for his conscience’s sake, but he knows there are a few others who ought be dying for theirs!

And so it is a real enough reason to call off a friendship…but at the same time Thomas is only revealing this honest wrath because he is still fond of his friend and wants to protect him. Perhaps he thinks him a coward and a fool, but he still loves him.

The Traitor Friend)

And this is far from the only intricate relationship in A Man For All Seasons. Thomas is also friends with a young man named Richard Rich. Richard is desperate to make his way in life and hopeful that his friendship with Thomas More will open positions and profitability to him.

Thomas More likes Richard, but he also knows that the man is a leech, and so he counsels him to go find a safer station, like a teacher, where he won’t be tempted. But when the enemies of Thomas More gain the backing of the king there is an opportunity for Richard Rich to profit from betraying his friend. He goes to Thomas one last time for support, this time using a barely-disguised threat of throwing in with More’s enemies if Thomas will not relent:

RICH: Cromwell is asking questions. About you. About you particularly. He is continually collecting information about you!... I'm adrift. Help me.
MORE: How?
RICH: Employ me.
MORE: No.
RICH: Employ me!
MORE: No!
RICH: I would be steadfast!
MORE: Richard, you couldn't answer for yourself even so far as tonight.

Richard Rich will turn to the enemy (Cromwell) if Thomas More won’t employ him. Thomas More will not employ such a spineless weasel. And so Richard Rich goes to Cromwell. And then we have a scene of him acting reluctant and morose about betraying his friend…but why else did he go to his Cromwell if not do exactly that?

The man is fundamentally dishonest, even to himself.

The Servant)

Last of all let’s consider Thomas’s relationship with his servant Matthew. Matthew is surly and shiftless. There is little reason for Thomas More to care for him. And yet…after Thomas has lost his position and the means to pay for his household he has the following conversation with the man:

MORE: What about you, Matthew? It'll be a smaller wage. Will you stay?
MATTHEW: Don't see how I could then, sir.
MORE: Quite right, why should you? . . . I shall miss you, Matthew.
MATTHEW: No-o-o. You never had much time for me, sir. You see through me, sir, I know that.
MORE: I shall miss you, Matthew; I shall miss you.

Unlike Rich, Matthew is capable of being very honest of his unworthiness. Yet in spite of all the genuine reason Thomas has to dislike him, for some reason he still does. Thus their relationship is also layered and nuanced.

The Point to it All)

The story of A Man For All Seasons has everything to do with these complicated relationships. It is full of conversations just like these where things are said and not said, understood and misunderstood, implied and explicit.

All the lords vocalize their support of the king, even though their consciences’ balk at it. Thomas More will not speak his mind, yet everyone knows what is meant by his silence. He will end a friendship by expressing real frustrations, but still cares for the man he insults. Rich will imply threats, pretend innocence, and make entire falsehoods to win what he wants. And in the midst of all his trouble Thomas will express a fondness for a servant, even when there is no reason for him to like the man.

Nuance and subtlety are inherently some of the most difficult things for an author to write, I had my own challenges with them in my last entry of The Favored Son. A Man For All Seasons, however, effortlessly weaves them into almost every scene, until they become a core theme of the entire play.

In the next entry of my story I am going to continue with subtle implications laced through my main characters’ communication. Come back n Thursday to see how it turns out.

Why Do You Write That Way?

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It Once Was Much Worse)

At the end of my last story piece I mentioned that I had run into a little bit of trouble when transitioning from one scene to the next. It felt awkward even as I was writing it, and it sounded wrong when I reviewed it after the fact.

But let me be more precise about how it “felt awkward” as I wrote it. I think the best way to describe it would be that I felt detached from the experience. Where I usually feel like I am actively exploring the world with my characters, here I felt like I was simply typing out random words as a disinterested outsider.

And scenes that are written by a disinterested outsider are usually the least engaging ones to read as well. When an author is not connected to their own creation, then it is very hard for the audience to be.

I wanted to learn from this experience, so I decided to save the awkward segment for review. Here is how the scene originally played out.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then he scrabbled about in the dirt, picking up each coin, then turning and running further down the alley and into a door at its end.

Tharol shook his head and started to make his way back how he had come. He only made it as far as the adjacent alley, though, when he found his way blocked by a bearded and cowled man, peering at Tharol curiously and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Tharol shoved the money bag back into his side pocket, afraid that he had just met a more capable thief!

"Well that was an interesting thing to do," the man said.

"What?"

"Giving that boy half your money after working him over like that."

Tharol shrugged. "I suppose he needs it more than I do."

"A strange sentiment to be sure. Most people feel they always need more of that stuff."

"Well I didn't need those coins," Tharol said darkly. "If you must know, they were a bribe, and I didn't want to be tainted by them."

There are still a few typos and awkward phrases that I decided to leave for to keep this snippet authentic. But for a moment set those aside, and consider only the cadence and structure of the piece. Doesn’t it just feel off?

Getting Specific)

But why does it feel off? It’s all well and fine to know that a scene is bothering us, but if we can’t verbalize why, then we can’t correct it in an intentional way. All we can do is rewrite the piece over and over, hoping by pure dumb luck to find a version that works, with no guarantee that we ever will.

So I took the time and asked myself “why is this wrong?” And I found myself immediately gravitating to the first paragraph of the above section. It is made of of a flurry of rapid and excited statements in quick succession. Scrabbling in dirt, picking up coins, turning and running. Then I noticed this same pattern continued as I transitioned into the next scene. Finding his way blocked, bearded and cowled, shoving the money bag out of view. This sort of quick, dramatic phrasing doesn’t signal that we’re about to have a conversation with this new stranger, it seems to suggest that another fight will break out!

Of course it’s no wonder why I was writing it this way, I had just come out of a fight scene, where this sort of rapid pace was exactly what I needed. But now I needed to transition into something more measured, and doing so required me to pause and intentionally reset my own, personal rhythms.

Once I had done that, I ended up with the following.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then, all at once, he scrabbled about in the dirt, picked up each coin, and ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows. 

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn't gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so...

"You've been there the whole time?" Tharol demanded incredulously. 

I still start off the same way, because I am still wrapping up a fast-paced scene, and I need to not shut it out too abruptly. So there remains the quick phrases about the boy locking eyes, scrabbling in the dirt, picking up coins, and running down an alley. But now I have a turning point with the final phrase of that sentence: “disappearing into its murky shadows.”

The transition here is subtle but important. This last detail is appended to a list of actions. But it is not an action itself, it is a description. Thus in the extent of a single sentence I am seamlessly shifting the reader from thinking about actions to thinking about the little details.

I complete the transition by then describing Tharol standing still, bringing a sense of closure to the previous scene, and a reset before beginning the next. Now when he encounters the thin stranger it was far more natural to write out their exchanges at a slower, more gradual cadence.

In Summary)

So there you go. What I wrote the first time wasn’t working for me, but there was a reason why I was writing it that way. Once I understood the reason, I was able to pause and shift my frame of mind. Then I could write the necessary transition more naturally.

The important lesson here is to be mindful and intentional while writing. It’s easy and fun to just enter a state of flow where the words run out of your fingers as quickly as you think them in your mind. But every now and again it’s important to pause, think, and write what you write intentionally. I’ll try to remember this approach as I continue with the next section of The Favored Son. Come back on Thursday and I’ll let you know how that approach went.