Core Needs

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This last Thursday I posted a short, simple story about a father and son who were experiencing a moment of frustration and exhaustion. Each was tired of their shared struggle, and each had their own idea of what it was they needed in order to be happy. For the son, Teddy, he felt he needed to have his nasogastric tube removed and thus be relieved from his constant soreness and discomfort. The father, Christopher, needed Teddy to understand why it was important for the tube to remain, and thus continue enduring all of that soreness and discomfort.

It should be immediately apparent that these two needs were incompatible with each other. For either to be met would mean to deny the other one. As such the two characters found themselves not only struggling with the situation but with one another, trying to convince the other to give way. Neither was successful.

Fortunately for these two characters, neither of their supposed needs were what they truly needed. Beneath the surface there were deeper core needs, and eventually each of the characters stumbled upon them. In reality it was Teddy who needed his father to understand him. Teddy didn’t need the pain to be taken away, he just needed someone to appreciate how great that pain really was. He needed to be validated and heard. Christopher, meanwhile, really needed to process his own guilt and express sorrow for it. Perhaps it is irrational for a father to feel guilty when a child feels ill, and yet emotions don’t have to be rational to be real. Valid or not, Christopher needed to acknowledged that he did indeed feel that way and get those thoughts of inadequacy of his chest.

These core desires, happily, were not so incompatible with one another. Teddy cried and his father empathized with him. This had the dual effect of Teddy feeling heard, while amplifying Christopher’s sense of guilt to the point that he could recognize and voice it. Both characters grew, and more importantly they grew together.

This idea of characters thinking they need one thing, and then discovering that deep down they really needed something else is not a new notion by any means. It’s a concept that finds its roots in actual life experience. Hopefully each one of us has had those experiences of finally understanding the reasons and motivators behind the strange things that we do. Suddenly behavior that seemed to us random or without purpose, now is recognized as being driven by a basic inner need. No wonder, that authors have sought to recreate such poignant moments of epiphany in their stories.

Consider the tale of The Bishop’s Wife. Or maybe the tale of Mary Poppins. If you think about it, these are actually the exact same story, just with two different coats of paint. In each we begin with a father, one who is busy with his important business and civic duties. They are both proud and hard working, but each has a problem as well. In the case of The Bishop’s Wife it is that he doesn’t have enough money to build the church he dreams of, and in Mary Poppins it is that he needs someone to care for his children and keep them out of his hair.

In each story the father petitions for help, one through prayer and another through an advertisement. Each is looking for help in obtaining what they need. An assistant comes to each, one in the form of an angel and the other as a nanny. Both fathers are appalled to find that these assistants are not what they were hoping for at all! Rather than having their problems being solved they are instead compounded, weighing down on both men’s “important” work until at last something breaks and they reach their low point of the story.

It is only at this point where dreams have been lost that the two men are able to recognize what truly matters to them: their families. Suddenly their initial needs don’t seem like real needs anymore, just wants. Each story ends happily as they realize that they have had the power all along to give themselves that which is really important.

It might be tempting to scoff at the fathers in these stories being so misguided with their priorities in life. We would think that we all would know exactly what it was we needed in life, but in reality this is rarely the case. Our intuition will usually lead us correctly, but the challenge is in even knowing which of the many influences that drive us is that same voice of pure intuition. Whenever we have particularly strong wants or fears, those signals can often override the quieter, calmer voice deep within.

Sometimes we may even receive the answers to our deeper needs, feel better because of it, and still not recognize what just happened! There is a film I like which illustrates this very well. It is called The Way, and it tells of a group of four strangers who meet along the Camino de Santiago, a route of Catholic pilgrimage. Each of these four has come to this pilgrimage for a specific need in life. One is to quit smoking, another is to lose weight, another is to get past writer’s block. These are obviously very external, very surface needs. Eventually the crew reach their destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and having fulfilled their pilgrimage conclude that none of them have experienced the miraculous changes that they had hoped for. The smoker still smokes, the overweight man still likes fatty foods. They laugh at their naïvety, and then wander off in their separate ways.

However the attentive viewer will realize that the story is actually not being cynical at all. Though they did not receive the desire that they had voiced, each of them did, in fact, receive something that they needed even more. Things such as obtaining a friendship, a connection to a higher power, and the beginning of understanding one’s place in the world. None of this is ever called out explicitly, and I commend the film for its subtlety on the matter. It feels more authentic because of it.

Watching this film taught me a fascinating lesson about how stories can feature main characters which are motivated by core needs that not even they understand. It is the same for us in real life.

Often we do not realize we are ill until we have symptoms, and then we wish the symptoms away when really we need to be cured of the illness at our core. Then the symptoms will resolve themselves. Surface flaws like a smoking addiction and being overweight are unpleasant and it is natural to wish them away. But they will never leave us until we under the root causes beneath them, and address those instead. It may be that are psyche feels it needs these flaws to relieve guilt or anxiety. It is those deeper sensations of guilt and anxiety, then, that we need to find answers to before we can move forward.

On Thursday I will be presenting a story that is built entirely around a character and his needs. He will have surface needs that he recognizes, core needs that he does not, deep-seated self-doubts that confuse him, and moments of epiphany which he only partially comprehends. Also, in the spirit of the season it will be a story focused around giving and the reviving of the soul. I hope to see you then.

Following Footsteps

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Children tend to look like their parents. You’ve probably noticed this. Not only that, but they tend to act like them, too. For most of my life I merely attributed that to developmental nurturing, I assumed that people just tended to become like those they spent most of their time around. Undoubtedly that is true to a great degree, but it was remarkable to me when my wife and I first met our son how many of our personality traits and temperaments he already possessed, even before he could have learned them from us through direct experience.

I guess that makes sense. Why would we assume that the only things we pass on through our heredity are the physical attributes like facial structure and eye color? And so I believe that people have both a spark of individuality that is all their own, and then are added upon by all the people that are most important in their lives.

 

Projections)

This is an important consideration in crafting a character for a story. I’m sure you’ve heard that it is that each character in your story must have their own voice, their own characterizations, to be unique and distinct from one another. That is generally good advice, but we also shouldn’t t force them to be different just for the sake of being different. If your story includes two characters that are closely tied to one another, either by family relation, or years of association, it will feel more honest for them to share personality traits that they have projected onto one another. If one character is a descendant of another, ask yourself what characteristics they might have inherited from their forebearers.

There is an excellent example of this in the Lord of the Rings with the characterization of Aragorn. I’m specifically referring to the film adaptation here, as his character is one area where the film improved on the book. Aragorn is supposed to be a king, but he has removed himself from that path because he is haunted by the idea of failure. Why? Well among his ancestry there was a former king who was guilty a great betrayal, one which plunged the world into its current sea of darkness.

Aragorn says of the matter, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.” It is clear he is not expressing a hypothesis, a mere assumption that weakness probably exists in him, rather the conviction in his voice suggests that he has personally had moments of being weak, of failing, of shunning his duty. And when in his introspection he has tried to identify why he is so flawed he has recognized this as his inheritance from his ancestor. Thus he fears making the same mistakes as those that went before, and ironically, it is in his running from his title that he self-fulfills his own fears of failing to measure up. He makes himself more into the image of his forefather by trying to avoid that very thing.

This is a wonderfully rich character, and all by delving into some soulful examinations on what has made this man and who it was that did that making.

 

Second Parents)

Of course not all those that mold us are of our direct lineage. In our infancy and early childhood our parents and other direct family members are undoubtedly our greatest influence, but as we venture out into the world those initial personality traits start to get bent my new interactions. We have our mentors and friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of them rub off on us and can even forever alter the character we first began as. For better and for worse.

Typically when we use expressions like “he was a second father to me” or “she took me in like I was her own child” we often are referring to this sort of influence. We perceive that some person has remade us to be more like they are, and we signify this by assigning them a secondary-parent title. I’m not sure if there is anyone who doesn’t have these remaking characters in their lives, and it is a fascinating phenomenon to draw on in our stories.

In Les Miserables we have a harsh and fearful man in the form of Jean Valjean. He is a former convict and under the strict French regime he will always be a convict. Born in poverty and defined by his background to never amount to much. He fills that role well, even going so far as to beat and rob a priest whose only crime was showing him kindness.

When that priest responds to that cruelty with only greater kindness Jean Valjean is deeply moved and ultimately transformed. He has a moment of conflict between this new influence and this new impressions that has been made on him, then he ultimately allows himself to be remade in the likeness of that priest. He becomes devout, self-sacrificing, and generous, completely unrecognizable from the man of his origins.

 

Competing Voices)

It is very clever of Jean Valjean to have that moment of conflict between the two voices within him. After all, we do not typically emulate only one single persona in our lives either. We are mixed beings with a plethora of influences chattering within us. Some people even describe how those voices take the actual sound of a person that they know: a mother, a friend, a coworker. Those voices might disagree with each other, even argue. When a decision is difficult to make, we might remain at a standstill until we are able to identify which of all these competing voices really represents our own true self. Not all influences are good, after all, and at some point we have to prune ourselves to the person we really want to be.

Where do we find examples of this in stories? Actually we find them once more with Aragorn and Jean Valjean.

Aragorn is afraid of his heritage and own personal weakness. However that is not all that defines him. One mentor’s voice, that of Elrond, urges him to “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Elrond’s advice is able to strike a chord in Aragon, in no small part due to the fact that Elrond is literally a second father to him. When Aragorn’s birth father died it was Elrond who raised him as a son, and so has imprinted in the man a sense of wisdom and power. This is actually an element of the character that is better defined in the book than in the film, and is critical to understanding how and why Aragon is able to answer that call and evolve into something greater.

Jean Valjean, meanwhile, is not entirely in the clear after defeats his previous persona and turns over a new life. Throughout the rest of the tale he is haunted by the cruel guard that was set over him during his many years in prison: Javert. Javert is a manifestation of the voice in Jean Valjean that would pull him back to his former self, who tells him he can never be anything more than a convict. Javert tries to persuade Jean Valjean of this many times, and at times it is clear that Valjean is almost convinced by his arguments. It is only by constantly reaffirming his newness of soul that Valjean is able to hold onto his better life until the very end.

 

In conclusion, as we define the characters of our stories we ought to consider not only how they behave but also why they do so. What was their personality originally? How was that personality built on through nurturing influence? How was that then challenged by external influences? How are they, in turn, influencing others? For indeed, we cannot view influence as flowing one way only.

Parents, mentors, and friends may mold a man or woman, but they will also be molded in turn by that same individual. That’s a notion that deserves a little more elaboration, and on Thursday I will post a story that highlights this concept. Where my previous story gave a tragic tale of a father unable to connect with his son, this next one will portray a father who successfully gives to his child, but also receives from him as well. I hope to see you then.

Something Old, Something New

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Sadly, it seems to be in our nature that wherever we find a distinction between two entities, we almost invariably set them in opposition to one another. We hear of the battle of the sexes, of ongoing racial discrimination, of citizens divided down party lines. Battle, discriminate, divide. These are not passive words for merely identifying differences between each other, these are phrases suggesting fundamental opposition and inevitable hostile action.

If that is not enough, the tension is ratcheted up still further because we also happen to love and need each other. We are social beings, existing within families, communities, and nations, but all these conglomerations will result in our contrasts being awkwardly smashed together. To eradicate those that are different from us would only be self-destructive to our entire social ecosystem, but to preserve them will be a source of constant friction.

Of course this is the stuff that drama is made of! The very lifeblood of literature itself. I could quite easily dedicate an entire post to each of these human differences and explore how they relate to stories. Perhaps one day I will. For now, though, I want to focus on a very specific instance: that of the older generation in contrast to the newer.

I choose this subject because it has always with us and yet remains so rife with confusion and mixed feelings. We love our children and we love our parents. They truly are a part of us, and yet we constantly have fundamental disagreements as well. Why is that? Let’s take a look at some classic stories and see if they can’t shed any light on this phenomenon of humanity.

 

Youth)

First there are stories which are from the perspective of the rising generation trying to shake off the harmful traditions of the past. Surely there is no more famed example of this than Romeo and Juliet. Here the hate of the fathers is literally killing the children, stifling out all of the passion and energy that they burn with.

The parents in Shakespeare’s story seem to suggest that after a certain age we become set in our ways, and perhaps not for the better. Three-year-olds can be mortal enemies one moment, and then five minutes later all is forgiven and they are friends again. After a certain age setting aside old wounds doesn’t come so easily anymore, and blood feuds last forever.

Romeo and Juliet asks why should the children inherit the flaws and prejudices of their parents, though? It just grumbling that our parents are uncool, you understand, it’s that they are actually damaging us and we can do things better. In fact that is the pattern of the world. Our ancestors had slavery, they had terrible plagues, they had mass illiteracy. Humanity evolved past these limitations through the sequential improvements of one new generation after another. Now it’s the current youth’s turn to take it a step further. And if we can’t…well then maybe the poison is our only remaining choice, Romeo.

What is it that Romeo and Juliet tells us the rising generation wants? In a word: improvement.

 

Elder)

The older generation’s perspective, meanwhile, is often represented in stories as the elders steering the impetuous and naïve youth from their own self-destruction. There is an excellent example of this in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Here the tenets of tradition are being challenged on a macro level by the world at large, and on the micro level by Topol’s three eldest daughters. These young women are choosing their hearts over duty, embracing foreign philosophies, and even rejecting the foundations of their faith.

It’s not the younger generation means to be hurtful, it’s just that they seem to take their way of life for granted. They do not see that that life is a precarious tower of blocks that will topple if too many pieces are removed. All of the elders’ cautions go unheeded, though, and their predictions come to tragic fruition when those same foreign philosophies and cultures drive them from their homes, booting them out like the traditions they were built on.

From this perspective slavery, the plague, and illiteracy may indeed have been overcome in the past, but these are not beasts that once slain can never return. If we aren’t careful, it is entirely possible that we’ll undo all those advances and revert to a lower form of life.

The older generation wants the younger one to acknowledge that they have hard-earned wisdom to offer. To accept that they accomplished some tremendous things, and did so without setting aside their morals and principles. It wants the children to use their foundation and build off of that. To not have to relearn the same lessons over and over.

What is it that the Fiddler on the Roof tells us the older generation wants? In a word: stability.

 

Something in Between)

So what is it? Are we shaking off the antiquated and dangerous methods of the past and becoming the smartest, strongest, kindest generation yet? Or are we trifling with relics we don’t understand, slipping into moral depravity, and sliding back towards the evilest generations yet?

In The Last Grasshopper I described how it was necessary for the previous generation to clear the way for the new, to leave a space for them to fill and iterate on. However I also made the point that the next generation sprouts only from the seeds that that previous generation planted. The story was meant to suggest there needs to be a harmony of both foundation and change.

Because in the end, as I suggested before, we really do depend on one another. We cannot exist without the previous generation and we cannot perpetuate our existence without the next. Stories most frequently tell of conflicts between two sides, one that is good and one that is bad. But in this we forget that what we more commonly see in this world is conflicts between members of the same good side.

The friction between our differences is not meant to drive us towards that conflict, but rather to refine each other into something mutually better. After all, neither of the two generations’ desires that we mentioned above, improvement or stability, are wrong desires to have. Both are worth pursuing, but if the pursuit of either is too reckless or too stringent, it will jeopardize the other. The trick is working together to find the right compromise by which both can be secured. It is a two-way street, but when both sides are able to fully appreciate the validity in the other, only then can they realize that they are able to work together for the improvement of all.

 

In my next story I wish to look more closely at this idea of two sides locked in a duality of opposing, yet needing, one another. Specifically I will give a scene of a father and a son in deepest moral conflict, and all because of their mutual love for one another. That piece will be up this next Thursday, I’ll see you then!

Live a Life

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Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.

Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.

And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.

It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?

In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.

1)  Experience

Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.

Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.

Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.

But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.

Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.

2) Breaking through the monotony

I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.

It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.

Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.

Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!

I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.

3) Only as strong as your weakest link

Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.

Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.

Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.

When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.

 

In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.

For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.

A Proper Cadence

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On Thursday I shared the first half of a story that I had originally intended to publish in a single post. As I explained at the time, the reason for dividing it in two was based on the constraints of my appointed deadline. Each of my posts is given a three-day period to be taken from conception to published completion, and trying to do the entire story of The Noble in that allowance would have rushed the the work faster than it should have been. That “rushing” to which I am referring is twofold.

First, the story would have had to be less words. Where I have three days to write each story post, there are only so many words that I can write and still somewhat polish the work before pushing it out the door. I’ve come to learn that for me 3000 words is about my limit before I’m going to be cramming to get the post done in time.

So why didn’t my story fit within that 3000 word limit? Well, right from the outset I had created a general outline for the story, and it called for a very specific number of scenes: five. Each of those scenes was going to run for about a thousand words. Thus the only way to make the math work would have been to lop off two-fifths of the story, either by compressing the length of each scene or by removing them entirely.

So in my dilemma I saw only three options.

  1. Reduce to 3000 words and publish a polished but incomplete story, one that would essentially be a glorified outline of the full story I originally wanted to do.
  2. Super-speed write five thousand words, leaving no time for polish and refinement, and thus taking a hit in quality.
  3. Break the story into two posts.

Obviously the third of those options is the most attractive, given that it does the fullest justice to the story itself. But why did my story need to have five scenes in the first place? Could it really have not worked with only three? Why did each scene have to be a thousand words? Could they really have not worked with 600 each? These are questions related to a story’s overall cadence and a scene’s overall rhythm. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

How Many Scenes?

How many scenes are to be in a story is determined early in the writing process, usually it comes about as a direct byproduct of outlining your plot. Which leads us to the following question: when writing an outline, do you consciously consider how many scenes you are setting up your story to have? Do you have a specific number that you are trying to shoot for? Do you just starting with the beginning scene, decide what should immediately follow, and thus incrementally add scenes until you get to the end? It might be tempting to ignore these questions entirely and just let the story happen “naturally.” That does sound nice, but in practice this approach runs a high chance of finishing your entire work and only then discovering that its pacing is lopsided and disjointed. Far better to put the time in up front to get this right.

In the case of my story The Noble, I chose five scenes for a very specific reason. There were five main phases that I wanted my protagonist to go through in his arc, and each of those phases needed their own equal weight within the story. These steps of the story were chosen intentionally to give his development the natural arc I wanted, passing sequentially through cynicism, intrigue, hope, despair, and finally triumph. Notice how that sequence establishes the cadence of the entire story. About half of it will be spent in slowly ascending from cynicism to hope, after which we have a climatic drop to our lowest low and rise to our highest high. It’s a full and complete experience, and to reduce it to any three of those sequences would make his journey feel disjointed and unnatural.

These are exactly the sort of considerations you want to have when planning out your own stories. Have you decided which cadence you want your tale to follow? Have you chosen scenes that contribute to that natural rising and falling motion?  If your outline is missing a step in its arc then your plan is incomplete and you need to develop it further. Or if you have a complete trail from start to finish but then a few extra scenes along the side, then those parts are just “filler.” Cut them.

How Many Words

Alright, so that’s why I wanted five scenes for my story, no more and no less. But why did I choose 1000 words for each of those sequences? Quite frankly, I didn’t. When I first began I had no consideration for how many words each sequence would be,  that decision was to be determined by one thing and one thing alone: the tone.

Personally, I don’t believe in trying to make a story or a chapter fit into a predetermined size. I don’t think you should inflate your text to try and make it look more serious, I don’t think you should cut each sentence in half because you want it to sell better. It may be that a bigger or shorter story will be perceived differently, or will affect how many sales you are likely to achieve. But I consider each of those criteria to be far beneath the ultimate deciding factor: what sort of rhythm does your story want to be written in.

Consider my story Tico the Jester. This was from the perspective of a child and her toys. Their reality was one of quickly changing interests and high-energy imagination. The scenes there wanted to be written in a fast and snappy rhythm. Pausing to describe the scenery in detail would have been contrary to the tone of that story.

One the other hand consider Deep Forest. This was the recounting of a strange being slowly awaking in a massive forest, one buried by the accumulated dust of millennia at rest.  The scenes there wanted to be elaborate and ponderous. Trying to quickly move from one sensation to another would have also been contrary to the tone of that story.

So when it came time to write the first scene of The Noble, I simply started writing, detailing things or leaving them unexplained according to what felt right. It felt right if it matched the tone that I was trying to establish for that story. At the end of the first scene I looked at the word-count and it was at a thousand words, and I knew that this would be the average magnitude for each scene in the work. Individual sections might run a couple hundred words above or beneath this average, but they would all be around this estimate because they would each be given equal weight in their own space.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse to be unnecessarily wordy, which happens to be a flaw of mine that I am trying to keep in check. Nor is this an excuse to ignore painting the scenery, a flaw of mine that I am trying to get in the habit of. Merely it is stating that you try to find a narrative tone which has good synergy with the ideas of your story. Allow yourself to move along at a snappy pace when appropriate, and pause to take a knee and breathe in the world when that is what’s wanted.

 

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that your driving motivation in deciding both your story’s cadence and your scene’s tempo should be what your story needs. You should give your story what it deserves, and then let every other consideration follow behind.

It was that very mindset that resulted in me deciding that The Noble simply couldn’t exist in a single post. I look forward to sharing the second half of that tale with you on Thursday, and I hope you’ll find it was worth the intermission.

Who Are You Really?

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Are people inherently good or evil? It is a question that has puzzled our species for millennia, and likely will continue to do so for a very, very long while. No doubt this question takes such a hold on us because the nature of humans is divided. There is a conscience in us all, but there also is a beast. Which of those two halves do you consider to the more real part, or is each one an equal half of the whole? Are there only these two halves to a person, or is there an entire spectrum in between? If you are able to answer all of these questions for yourself, am I fundamentally the same as you or might my own reality be different?

These are ponderings of the soul, and as such the deepest, most personal musings we can ever engage in. And we certainly do engage in them, every single one of us has an opinion on all these matters. Even if this were the first time you had heard such questions and had never before given them serious thought, you will still have an initial default reaction that accepts some of the notions and rejects the others.

But what’s with all of this philosophizing in a blog about writing anyway? Well, what better way to give expression to our beliefs and ponderings than through story? Writers have considered and influenced philosophical opinion for as long as pen has been to paper.  One obvious example is the advice Polonius gives us. “To thine own self be true” he says, but Hamlet, like all the rest of us, wrestles with knowing who exactly is that own self he is to be true to?

Shakespeare was by no means the first author to grapple with these ideas, though. More than 2400 years ago Sophocles wrote of Antigone, the faithful sister that tries to bury her brother in defiance of the king’s command. She asserts that this defiance answers to a higher law, one written into the very human soul, a moral compass that defines her. So powerfully does she feel on the matter, that when she is frustrated in following this inner guide it breaks her and she cannot go on living.

Shifting our focus to somewhere more recent I am reminded of an episode from the original Twilight Zone series entitled The Masks. Here an old and wealthy man plays host to all of the mean and rotten descendants who will soon inherit his fortunes. He requires each of them to wear masks, ones that grotesquely reflect their individual character flaws. In this way, the wearing of the mask is actually the unmasking of the true self within.

In my own way I have tried to incorporate themes of discovering one’s true self in each of my short stories during this last month. Each of these four stories has approached these questions in a different way and with different conclusions.

The Wolf in the Room had as its objective to query what it is that defines a person as such. Here we had a main character that scene by scene lost more and more of his humanity, finally transforming into something new: a wolf. Meanwhile there was a corresponding wolf that incrementally gained in humanity until it took the form of our main character.

My purpose with this strange account was to pose a culturally relevant question, absent any answer. If a man changed into the form a wolf while a wolf changed into the form of that same man, are the two now their original selves or their new selves? I expect the outcome of the story will be dissatisfying to most readers, where it is determined that a person is defined by nothing more than their current physical status. I believe most of us would maintain that as we grow and change in life, there yet remains an inner identity within us that remains constant. What, then, is the essence of that which remains permanent?

In Stars and Stones is something of an outlier in this series, given that it features no central characters, therefore no personality arc, and therefore no questions about the true self. And that is exactly the point. This is a story about what is left of life when it lacks any consideration for one’s own humanity. Everything in this piece is presented in a cold and calculated way, a textbook reading of numbers and events, with no consideration for what any of it actually means. The conclusions that are drawn from this clinical perspective are quite bleak: all things die and no legacy is permanent. Life, as such, is meaningless.

Socrates suggested that the unexamined life was not worth living, and surely he meant examined by the heart. Numbers and statistics are wonderful tools for measuring this world and we have a great need for them. Yet we must not forget that we also have great need for humanity, for thoughtful introspection, and for loving connection to others. Yes there are the cold facts of life, but there also the wonderful warm mysteries within it.

The Basketball in the Water echoes the importance of these humanizing moments, though it was far more forward with its themes. At the outset we have a man meeting with his therapist, a man who has gone to great lengths to avoid just these sorts of introspections. So much of the anxiety and fidgeting he exhibits are a direct result of that unwillingness to look at the man within, and the story suggests that it is most often tragedy and guilt that prevents us from engaging in this otherwise natural and healthy self-reflection.

Because of his mistakes he is burdened with a fundamental belief that at his core he is inherently evil, not good. He feels his past has condemned him, and so sees nothing but pain in rehashing that past. I tried to craft his plight in such a way that the reader would understand why he would naturally feel that way, but in the end want him to accept that he is being too hard on himself. The hope is that if the readers were able to have that sympathy for his situation, then perhaps they could consider whether they are not being too hard on their own situations as well.

Revenger of Blood suggests the presence of not only a self, but also of a higher self. Throughout its length the main character is grappling between a sense of duty and a conscience that refuses to consent to that duty. Ultimately the protagonist is able to come to the epiphany that the only true duty is that of the conscience. Sometimes we try to make the decision between right and wrong so complex, weighing pros and cons and debating both sides of the field. Nine times out of ten, though, our inner compass has already told us what we ought to do, and we’re just not willing to face the unpleasant consequences that can accompany acting on our conscience.

I might go to a grocery, select my items, and purchase them for their full retail value. At this point I have done no wrong. I have not tried to rob the store, I have obeyed every law, and I am completely justified. However the absence of doing wrong is not the same as doing right. The law does not require me to smile and brighten my cashier’s day, but perhaps my conscience does, though my introverted nature is uncomfortable with the prospect. If I do not learn to answer that higher call of my heart, I will lead only a half-complete life. The greatest acts of good we do are those that are demanded only of our own heart.

 

It has been quite fulfilling writing this more contemplative series of short stories. Obviously when authors publish work with introspective musings a very personal part of them has been opened for all the world to see. You can probably already tell that my answer to the question “are people inherently good or evil” is that I believe them to be good. There are those that would feel obligated to defend that belief by citing all sorts of logical or religious rhetoric. I suppose those have their place, but for me I cannot give any better evidence than that when I do good, I simply feel that I am being by most true self.

This Thursday I will be posting my final story in this current series, and I will be maintaining the theme of characters seeking to discover their true selves. Specifically I will be focusing on the idea of being called to redefine oneself into something greater. I hope to see you then.

Secret Messages

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One of my favorite things in stories is when the dialogue is multilayered. As I said in my post last Thursday, this sort of dialogue always comes with an obvious meaning, the literal definition of the words being said, but beneath that is a second meaning, or in some cases even a third. Think of a spy film where the villain and hero meet in the middle of  crowded ball. The villain implies bodily harm through a veiled threat and the hero laughs it off with a witticism that ends in a code phrase meant for fellow agents who are listening in over his earpiece.

Or what about even blunter dual-messages that crop up in many romantic stories? Here the two main characters are very obviously confessing their love for one another, but for tension’s sake are pretending to discuss something else entirely. No one is fooled, nor indeed are they meant to be.

“There you are Miss Dotty, the plumbing is all fixed. Seems a few things just got built up and needed to be let out.”

“Oh thank you. Yes, I suppose that is my way. I just hold in too many things which I ought to be expressing out…in my plumbing, that is.”

“Yes, well, we all do. Sometimes we need another sympathetic heart to come and help us open up…to flush out our sludge, that is.”

“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t ever care to know about my sludge Mister Donny.”

“On the contrary, Miss Dotty, I have never felt so alive as when scrubbing out your vile filth.”

“Oh Mister Donny!”

“Miss Dotty!”

Well that is more than enough of that. Moving on…

Obviously there can be clever wordplay in these verbal acrobatics, but I wish to focus more on the more subtle examples, ones where the dual meaning isn’t being said from one character to the other, but rather from the character to the audience. And if audience members have not been paying attention, they might very well miss out on that hidden message entirely, meaning it comes as a reward only to the observant.

An example of this would be the oft-repeated phrase “recalled to life” in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most every reader is going to pick up on its initial meaning, that of a man condemned to an age of imprisonment finally being “exhumed” back into the real world. However that phrase is also a motto for the entire novel, and it is entirely possible to miss out on some of its incarnations. There are the long-forgotten injustices and cruelties being recalled into sharp clarity via the barbarity of the French Revolution. There is the man condemned to the guillotine and then rescued from it. There is the man who lost his soul, then found it again in an act of selflessness. And in that same man there is his literal death, and then rebirth in a legacy that will live on forever.

There’s another excellent example of dual-meaning in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The very last line of the film is “no, this is for me,” by which a customer indicates he does not want the book he is buying to be gift-wrapped. On the surface that is pretty clear. He is keeping the book for himself and therefore doesn’t need it wrapped, the store clerk won’t give his pronouncement any second thought. The audience, however, happen to know that this book is in praise of the anonymous Stasi agent who spared the author when he was under surveillance in Eastern Germany. The audience also knows that this man purchasing the book is that same Stasi agent, and that his entire career was ruined by that decision to spare the author, a decision he made for no other reason that that he felt that the author was a good man.

Now that simple pronouncement of “no, this is for me,” is referring to the fact that he is the one to whom this book has been dedicated and thus it is literally for him. It is for him also in the sense that this is the legacy which he has earned by his sacrifice, the reward for his suffering. It is for him because he has earned it, a gift that needs no more wrapping and concealing. For such a short sentence, it is impressively loaded with meaning and a very fitting conclusion to the entire story.

Before closing, I thought I would try and tackle the question of why does this sort of multilayered communication stand out to us? Why do we judge it as something “good” when a story incorporates these elements in a thoughtful and effective way?

Well first off, I feel that this is a subset of an greater multilayering principle that improves every aspect of a story, including dialogue. After all, we all know a character is flat if they only have a single dimension with no conflicting principles, and I have mentioned in a previous post that as much as possible we should strive for scenes that progress more than just a single plotline at a time. Characters and scenes and dialogue that are multipurpose, that advance more than one idea at a time, are by definition more complex, more difficult to achieve, and therefore more impressive when done well. Something about our human nature sees beauty in complexity, and incorporating it is an excellent way to engender goodwill for your story.

The other reason why I think we gravitate to these sorts of layered dialogues is because they are tied to a pattern of social behavior we all partake in: that tendency to say things while meaning something else. After a certain age we have all learned to not say things directly, for better or worse. To put it kindly we have speak with nuance and suggestion, and to put it more unkindly we have are manipulative and passive aggressive.

We engage in this game whether we are in love and trying to tease the other person into disclosing their feelings before we do, or whether we are in hate and trying to disguise a barb that we can claim was never our intended meaning. Across the whole spectrum of emotions we have become masters of saying things and meaning things, and doing so separately from one another. It’s amusing, then, that sometimes we have a hard time incorporating this extra dimension into our writing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to force things that we forget we can do it naturally. If you’ve struggled with this sort of layered dialogue, see if you can just get out of your own way and rely on your basic intuition.

On Thursday I will post a short story in which I try to build up an example of this sort of multi-layered dialogue. Admittedly this is a daunting task to me, at this point I have a general outline of the story I want to do, but don’t actually know the details of my dialogue yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to take my own advice, stop stressing about it, and just let my natural multi-dimensional self shine through in my writing.