I never lacked for food, clothing, or shelter as a child. I never brought any complaints to my mother in those departments. What complaint I do remember bringing to her, however, was that I was bored!
“Well you have plenty of toys!” she might say.
“Yes, and I’ve played with them all.”
“I haven’t heard you practice your piano lessons yet…”
“No thank you.”
“Why don’t you read a book?”
“I’ve read books.” (To be fair, I really had. I read many, many books in my youth.)
“Well I’ve certainly got my fair share of chores that you could help me out with.”
“I said I was bored, not a masochist!”
Clearly, it was up to me to resolve this dilemma.
It was a tricky problem. For starters my family was homeschooled and insulated, so I didn’t have any friends to hang out with. We didn’t have cable or internet or video games. We did have over-the-air television and movies, but I was quickly saturated with those and still dissatisfied. And it wasn’t entertainment I wanted anyway, it was something to do.
We did have a computer, though. A Windows 95, complete with Microsoft Office. Simply because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I gravitated towards this, and in my boredom found two great loves that have defined me ever since.
One was programming. I found how to record macros in Microsoft Excel, and I used that to start making simple point-and-click adventures. I would try to make sense of the generated code and modify it when it didn’t quite do what I wanted. I didn’t know that this “programming,” and I certainly didn’t know that you could make a living off of it. At that time it was just my own little world, and it would be years before I stepped into the wider universe of software development and made it into my career.
There was another “own little world” that I found on that computer, too. One day I opened up Microsoft Word and started writing out my first story. I got out all of four-and-a-half pages, literally could not think of a single other thing to say, so I typed THE END at the bottom.
I was hooked.
One story followed another. One about a superhero, one about a small ant, one about a group of orphaned children. Each one was longer than the one previous: ten pages, fifteen, twenty.
Finally, when I was about twelve, I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. From that point on everything I wrote was a fantasy. I scaled my writing up to an epic novel in five parts which totaled over 100,000 words. My next work was the only hand-written piece I’ve ever done, and it was over 300 pages.
And all of this writing was done primarily on days when I was bored. Eventually I got a job and went to college, and for a time was too busy for the writing. But thanks to the days of boredom, I had found the things that I loved to do, and I always knew that I would return to them eventually.
Boredom: The Sequel)
Nowadays, I am not nearly so bored. Of course there are the occasional moments of lethargic indifference, where nothing sounds interesting to me. And there are the brief stretches of time where I have to impatiently wait for something. But by and large boredom is not a way of life anymore.
And that’s alright, because I already have my passions to follow. So now boredom serves a new purpose. I don’t use it to seek out what vocation speaks to me, I use it to know when I’m doing a good job in that vocation. For example, when I’m writing a story and I start to get bored with it, I know it means that I’m leading the story down the wrong path.
Think of a story as a journey, one where you are willing to arrive at any destination, so long as it is an interesting one. With parameters that wide, you could take this journey in any manner of different directions. But of course, not all of those paths are going to be as fruitful. In this journey there are treacherous routes you need to avoid altogether. You certainly don’t want to get stuck in the bogs of inaction, or tangled in the doldrum forests, or lost in the mazes of irrelevant plot.
Each of these slows your progress, and some can even bring you to a complete stop. I know this firsthand.
Because for all the stories I mentioned up above, the ones that I completed in my teenage years, there were just as many that I only partially wrote. They were tales that I began with great excitement, but which somewhere along the way found unbearable to continue.
At the time I didn’t understand why I couldn’t finish those projects, why my stamina ran out on some stories but not on others. As I’ve gone back and read over the unfinished drafts, though, I’ve realized that I always quit right when I hit the boring parts.
It is barely tolerable to sit through the boring scenes as a reader, but it is all the more unlikely to power through them as the author.
In the course of writing this blog I have run into this same conundrum again. I had multiple instances where I dreaded continuing with my current story, and fortunately I realized that it was not an option to just force my way through. If I did that, then I would deliver stories that I hated and my readers would be bored out of their minds by, and eventually I would stop writing them altogether.
So instead I have learned to recognize that dread of writing for what it is: my journey has wandered into one of those paths of boredom. And when I realize this I say “Oh, looks like I found the wrong path. I really had meant to go down this way, but it’s better to give up those expectations than kill the whole thing.”
Then I delete the last few paragraphs–take a few steps back on the path–until I reach the junction where I turned into the troublesome area, and look for another way forward. And you know what? I’ve always been able to find one.
A Non-Boring End)
So here I am, writing stories that I truly enjoy, and I owe it all to boredom. Boredom led me to discover story-telling in the first place, and boredom showed up again just last week to save me from writing a lifeless exchange in my most recent story.
My first draft of the boys discovering the stranger had been platonic and rigid and unbearable to write. Thanks to boredom, that scene now features a freakish woman whose face has been turned to stone and a guard who wields a shotgun-crossbow. You’re welcome!
Come back on Thursday to see how that story progresses. I promise I will have course-corrected any time it started to stray towards boredom!
I thought it fitting that after having completed fifty short stories I am about to try something I’ve never done in my writing. At the end of my last story, The Favored Son, I expressed a desire to give it a second try, to rewrite it with a different plot and set of themes.
Not because the first try was a failure, I actually liked it pretty well when all was said and done, but because there is a very different experience that I believe I can grow from the bones of the first, and I just can’t turn down an opportunity like that! Like Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll or the scientists in Jurassic Park, just to imagine the experiment is to already be compelled to see it through. Never mind what the outcome might be, the question of “can I pull it off” must be answered!
Man’s Exceeding Reach)
But unlike those examples, my cobbled-together monstrosity probably won’t be trying to kill anyone!
Which is a very interesting pattern from those three stories. Each one of them is a fresh take on the same theme, one of the most common themes in all of literature: man should not deal with matters that are beyond him.
Frankenstein is trying to play God by creating new life. Though at first he appears to have succeeded, eventually he learns that making something walk and talk is not enough. Man needs a soul, strong morals, and innate goodness. This new creature lacks all of these qualities, and so is not a man, but a monster.
Dr. Jekyll learns a very similar lesson, though his attempt it not to create new life, but to circumvent human nature. What if instead of going through the long process of mastering oneself you could just drink a potion and amplify all of your best qualities? A tempting idea, but Dr. Jekyll learns the hard way that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement.
The scientists in Jurassic Park find a way to extract dinosaur DNA and use it to clone new incarnations of those creations. And in the words of one of the film’s protagonists, those “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And…of course…they shouldn’t have. For soon the wildlife gets free, and then the humans learn that nature had given them a great gift in separating their species from these true apex predators!
But why is this the central message of these stories? Why have authors felt it so important to caution us against playing God? Magic potions and cobbled together bodies are pure fantasy, not reality. Are there any true-to-life examples of people unleashing unforeseen tragedies by reaching further than they knew how to control?
Earlier this year my wife and I watched the miniseries Chernobyl, which related the events of a nuclear power plant’s meltdown near the city of Pripyat in 1986. From the very outset this event was tragic on a local scale. An earth-shattering explosion in the middle of the night and engineers coming down with a strange illness and dying painfully. But beyond that an even bigger problem had just been let out of the bottle. There followed the spread of an inorganic disease, an intense radiation that could both kill instantly and over a lifetime, infecting thousands and rendering a thousand square miles as uninhabitable.
Just how many thousands have died or are dying from this nuclear fallout is unclear. Current estimates range as high as the tens-of-thousands. In either case, it was a man-made failure that was as lethal as a natural disaster.
And the question of course is, but why? What was it that caused this failure? That is the main mystery at the heart of the miniseries, and in the end the answer is simply that the people responsible were dealing with powerful forces that they did not fully understand. They created a disaster, simply by not knowing that their particular sequence of steps even could result in that disaster. They were trying to pinch at a beach ball with a pair of tweezers.
Perhaps this recent event was in the filmmakers minds when they made Jurassic Park, but what about for Frankenstein and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? There weren’t people making nuclear power plants back when those stories were written, so what horrible cataclysms did those authors have to caution against?
Or what about going even further back? As I said, this is one of the most prevalent themes in all of literature. Why does it show up in Icarus flying too close to the sun, in Pandora opening her box, in Prometheus stealing fire for mankind, in King Midas wielding the power of golden touch? Clearly the ancient Greeks had a deep mistrust of people dealing with elements that were beyond them! But why?
Because massive tragedy is not dependent on great technology. Perhaps there were no nuclear power plants in among the Ancient Greeks, no weapons of mass destruction, no international travel to spread globe-wide diseases…but there were always leaders who outstepped their bounds, and it was their people who then paid the tragic price for that.
For example, the Greeks only came into power at the sunset of the Persian Empire. The Persians were preceded by the Babylonian Empire, and before that the Assyrian. Each of these kingdoms pursued their conquest with a voracious appetite, overextending themselves, weakening their borders, and finally falling to their own hubris.
And the Greeks paid sharp attention to history, and they would not have missed this pattern. So perhaps their motivation for weaving that element of hubris into so many of their tales was to caution their own leaders from repeating the same mistake!
But…they did. And when the Roman Empire rose next, it was over the dead bodies and broken spirits of the Grecian populace. How ironic that the Greeks, of all people, could not resist flying too close to the sun.
A More Ancient Tale)
And perhaps these stories have their root in the very beginning of humanity. It has always been within us to build towers to reach to heaven, until God smites us back down to earth. It has always been our nature to reach for fruit that was not meant for us, and reap the consequences that follow.
It is an idea I intend to replicate in my remade version of The Favored Son. There were shades of hubris in the first, but with this second I intend to more fully make the villain’s downfall be one of toying with forces that he does not understand.
Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably. “But–he’s not doing anything to us.”
Inol’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we here, Tharol?”
“We’re getting the weapons.”
“To do what? What are we here for ultimately?”
“Attack the elders?”
Inol nodded. “So why are you dragging your feet right now? Maybe Reis was right about you.”
Tharol cast around in his mind. It was true that he didn’t want to be a part of this, didn’t want to have this war with the elders. Everything he had just seen further convinced him that these people were not in their right minds, and so he didn’t want to be their executioner. He pitied them.
But…Tharol knew saying things like that weren’t going to go over very well. Everyone else was convinced that this war was the right way forward, and they were closed off to any criticism of it. So Tharol shook his head and went a different route. “Our first priority is to get these weapons to the others, so that they have a fighting chance when the main assault happens; not to go off on a whim, get ourselves killed, and leave our comrades helpless.”
“He has a point,” Bovik nodded.
“No he doesn’t,” Inol spat. “There’s three of us and one of Master Y’Mish. These are the best odds we’ll see all night!”
Bovik sighed. “That’s a good point, too.”
Tharol looked to Bovik. “What will it be then?”
“I vote we find the others, Inol wants to fight this elder. What do you choose?”
“That’s not for me to decide!”
“What else is there?” Tharol shrugged. “We have no leader, and no explicit commands to guide us, so we all get a voice. What side do you take?”
Bovik squirmed uncomfortably, darting his eyes back-and-forth from Tharol to Inol.
“Well…I guess we try and take him, then. We take Master Y’Mish down, and then we find our comrades without further delay.”
“So be it,” Tharol sighed, then swung his leg out to the stone statue.
As silently as possible, the three youth stole to down the legs of the statue and off its base. Inol and Tharol left the other Shraying Staffs in a nearby bush, and then they rushed towards the orchard path. Master Y’Mish had not returned from there yet, so they lined up on either side of the walkway, Inol on the left-hand side, Bovik and Tharol on the right.
“Alright, we have him trapped now,” Inol observed. “We wait here until he comes out. When he does, we move quickly and decisively. We don’t try to talk to him, we don’t try to restrain him. We kill him.”
Tharol and Bovik nodded.
“Are you two going to use your Shraying Staffs?” Bovik asked eagerly. “How do they work?”
Tharol looked down to his arm and regarded the flexing metal shafts that covered his flesh. His arm ended in a large, menacing claw, and for a moment he envisioned five fingers instead. Even before the metal shafts began to realign themselves he knew that they would. All he had to do was think the form, and the Shraying Staff began spinning and contorting to create it. He could even flex each individual finger at will, as if it had been a real hand.
“Oh skies!” Bovik breathed in awe. “Let me have one.”
“I don’t have them anymore. We left them back there, remember?”
“Hsssh!” Inol spat out, and once the other boys quieted they could make out the sound of footsteps approaching down the orchard path.
Bovik silently drew out his standard sword and all three youth waited anxiously in the shadows. The steps grew nearer and nearer, without the slightest variance in rhythm. It was like the cadence of a machine.
Inol and Tharol had their eyes locked on one another from each side of the path. Suddenly their view of the other was broken as Master Y’Mish stepped between, and each sprang forward instantly.
Without even looking to either side, Master Y’Mish thrust his hands outward, expertly dodging their weapons and striking each youth squarely in the chest. He hit them with an impossibly powerful force, and both of the boys spun head over heels backwards.
Bovik managed to leap over Tharol as he went rolling by, kept his footing, and swung his sword forward with a cry. Master Y’Mish whisked his own sword out and the two of them crossed blades.
“Don’t worry about defeating him, Bovik,” Tharol cried as his roll finally came to a halt. “Just hold your ground.” He scrambled up to his feet and looked down to his arm, changing his sectioned fingers into a long, piercing blade. But then he paused, gripped by the memory of when he had fought Master Dovi and the voice told him to claim the elder’s weapon with his own blood.
Tharol looked up in shock. Master Y’Mish had just deflected another of Bovik’s thrusts, then used his free hand to punch the boy in the throat, sending him sprawling backwards with his hands around his neck. Behind them Inol was charging forward again, his Shraying Staff-arm also formed in the shape of a long blade.
“Inol, no!” Tharol cried. “Don’t cut him!”
It was too late, though. Master Y’Mish turned to face Inol, saw the raised blade, and casually lowered his weapon. With a shout Inol plunged his weaponized arm clean through Master Y’Mish’s heart. The elder slumped to the ground without a cry.
“Well that wasn’t so hard,” Inol crowed, while Tharol went to check on Bovik, who was still gagging and holding his throat.
“I’m fine,” Bovik croaked. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“You shouldn’t have cut him,” Tharol shot at Inol.
“It’s something I learned earlier. When someone gets their blood on a blade, they’re able to claim it for their own.”
“Are you so sure?” Tharol pointed to the ground, where the body of Master Y’Mish was rapidly changing. It seemed to be melting into a long, silver strand, and it reached through the air like a cord, wending its way out of the gardens and back towards the rest of the elders. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Tharol believed he heard a chorus of steps from far away, all marching towards them in perfect unison.
“We should get out of here,” Bovik said.
The other two readily agreed. They retrieved the other Shraying Staffs and ran as quickly as they could through the halls of the abbey. All the youth had agreed that they would regroup at the Wester Hall after accomplishing their various tasks. As Bovik, Inol, and Tharol approached the tall doors of that great room they finally slowed to a walk, panting for breath and holding their sides.
Inol reached up and knocked on one of the doors. “White rose,” he whispered through the crack, and someone inside undid the latch.
“What took you so long?” Reis demanded as the three boys walked into the hall.
“Ran into the elders,” Inol explained. “They’re in the passageway between the gardens and the dining hall. They’re in a sort of–trance.” Inol looked sideways at Tharol and then leaned close to Reis. “Hey, come over here, though. There’s something we need to talk about in private.”
Tharol rolled his eyes and tried to not dwell on the two of them as they peeled off to the side and had a hushed conversation together. He was sure Inol was reporting about Tharol’s hesitation to attack Master Y’Mish, and whether that was evidence of treason.
“Let them have their conspiracies,” Tharol thought bitterly, then looked around to see how many youth had already made it back from their missions. All of them were present, apparently Bovik, Inol, and he had taken longer than they realized with all their side diversions.
Each of the youth were pacing restlessly, some of them muttering together in twos or threes. Each of them seemed on edge, jumping at any sound that was louder than a whisper. No doubt they were all expecting the elders to come crashing in on them at any moment. Scared to stay in one place for too long, terrified to go out for the battle.
Why were they doing this? Tharol wondered. They all craved a strong leader like Reis, needed it in a time of crisis like this, but he was leading them far beyond what they were ready for.
Before Tharol could think any more on the matter, Reis had concluded his private conversation with Inol, and now he was coming to address the rest of the crowd.
“Well done everyone,” he praised, “that’s every mission fulfilled flawlessly. It would seem the elders have retreated to a single position, one that is ill-guarded. This is very fortunate, and we can stage our attack to our own advantage. On the other hand, it does mean an all-out fight, where I would have rather preferred to single them out one-at-a-time. Still…” Reis paused and surveyed the gathered youth, unsure and wavering. He nodded approvingly. “I like our chances. If this is our moment, let it be now. I feel no greater privilege than to–“
A soft clatter echoed from the halls. On a normal night, it was the sort of sound one wouldn’t even give a second thought. But to the youth now it sounded like the approach of death itself. Each of them locked their eyes on the double-door, half expecting it to be blasted in at any moment.
The explosion never happened, however they became aware of a subtle, pulsating rhythm coming from far away. It sounded very low and dark, like the rushing of wind at the bottom of a deep well. One-by-one the youth looked back to Reis.
“We go now. Tharol and Inol, hand out those weapons. We’ll advance on the garden-dining hall passageway in two groups–“
“I’m not so sure that they’re still there,” Tharol interrupted. “I thought I heard them moving as we left”
“Stick as one group then, but fan out. If we see them at a distance, and they haven’t detected us yet, we’ll pause to set up the razor cord trap. At each juncture, the people furthest to the right and furthest to the left check each path before we proceed.”
Everyone scrambled to take a weapon, or get in position, activated more by fear than duty. In only a matter of second they all stood at ready before the door.
“Alright,” Reis breathed deeply. “Go.”
Bovik and Golu opened the doors, and everyone moved out as one. They spread out to fill the full width of the hallway. Well, not quite everyone. Tharol noticed the space immediately behind him being filled out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to find Inol there.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“You and I work together. As a unit.”
“But I thought–“
“Hush!” Reis called back over his shoulder.
Tharol bit back the rest of his comment and kept moving forward. He didn’t care for the feeling of Inol lurking immediately behind him, though. Didn’t care for it at all.
Together the group of youth reached the first intersection. Marvi and Jolu peered down the two sides, then looked back to Reis and shook their heads. There was no one there.
Reis cocked his head upwards, listening for which way the deep strumming sound was coming from. He pointed dead ahead. Again they moved forward as one, taking one hallway after another, winding their way closer and closer to the source of the sound.
Now they came to a hall with ceiling-high archways opening to their right every few feet, overlooking the gardens. As they approached each opening the youth snapped their heads to the right, anxious to detect any threat that might be lurking out there.
Tharol could feel it in the air–was sure everyone else could feel it as well–they were close. The elders were very near. Any second now and there would be–
“OHHH!” Golu suddenly cried, which startled half of the other youth into shouting as well. Golu’s hand was extended towards the nearest archway. At first Tharol saw nothing, but following Golu’s hand he picked up the figure of a ghoulish creature hunched by the bushes, eyes staring out at them unblinkingly.
“It’s just a statue!” Reis hissed, and Tharol realized it was true. A stone gargoyle, skewed by the sideways moonlight and their own imaginations until it was nearly unrecognizable.
But the shout of the youth had already broken the spell. The deep, distant thrumming picked up in speed and volume, moving rapidly towards them. Seeming to echo through the walls and shake the stones at their feet.
“Oh no, they’re coming!” Jolu wailed. “We have to retreat!”
“No, stand firm!” Reis commanded. “Everyone ready your–“
“No!” Jolu panicked. “No we have to–have to–” the fear overtook him and he lifted his trembling hands to his eyes.
“Get him out of here!” Reis snapped. “He’s losing his nerve!”
“No,” Tharol said in dread. “It’s not that.”
Jolu’s whole body now trembled with his hands, his flesh rippled as an invisible wave passed through. His eyes rolled back into his head and the backs of them shone with a ghostly light. Then, suddenly, his hands stilled and his body went limp. How he remained standing was impossible to tell, it seemed as if he was being suspended only by an invisible puppeteer’s string.
“He’s being invaded.”
Jolu’s arms snapped upwards and he lurched forward towards the rest of the youth. A strange cry came from his mouth, like a miniature echo of the strumming sound they had been following.
And his wasn’t the only cry. It was being echoed behind them as well, though it was higher in intensity, like a shriek! Tharol already knew what he would see when he looked that way. The faceless entity had arrived, from it all of the elders were emerging, and they were also lurching to the attack!
On Monday I spoke about how stories are not only plot, character, and theme, they are also windows into new and exciting experiences. One of the reasons we pick up a novel or watch a movie is just to be given an image or idea that we’ve never experienced before.
With last week’s entry, and this one as well, my intention was to stuff one new idea after another into every scene. But the idea was not actually to amuse my readers, but rather to overwhelm them. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to not be able to grasp the rules of this new world, and to be uncertain of what might happen next. In this way I mean for them to have the same experience of our characters, who are all experiencing the rug being pulled out from under them.
I would say my greatest danger is overdoing it, and making it impossible for the readers to feel grounded in the story at all. In a world where literally anything can happen, it stops being surprising when yet another oddity follows after another.
This is an idea I’d like to explore with my next post. There have been some extremely weird stories over the years, full of all manner of crazy ideas, yet audience’s have been able to connect to and find personal meaning in them even so. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at a few examples, and consider how a story can walk the line of being unpredictable, yet relatable.
There is a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which the main character has trespassed onto forbidden lands and seeks the aid of a disembodied demon. He presents a young woman who has been sacrificed and pleads for her soul to be returned to her body. He is told that his wish may be granted…but only if he is able to defeat sixteen colossi in battle, each of which is scattered across the land. A very dangerous undertaking to be sure, but one that he will gladly face to save her.
And so he goes out, toppling one giant monstrosity after another. And at the conclusion of each battle he falls unconscious, only to awaken back at the hall where he has laid the young woman’s body on an altar. Each time he awakens the exact same ritual commences: the statue representing the most-recently-dispatched colossus bursts into pieces, the disembodied voice tells him where he must go to face his next quarry, and the boy sets off to fulfill the task. It a scene very reminiscent of Hercules returning to King Mycenae after each of his labors to receive the next piece of his penance.
Over and over the pattern repeats in Shadow of the Colossus. Each chapter is book-ended by this same return to the hall and altar. You become very familiar with this place, and in its repetition it starts to become personally meaningful. The cavernous chamber, the flowing staircase, the never-ending bridge…without even trying to one starts memorize every little detail. This place starts to feel like home.
In a game otherwise filled with danger and tragedy this is a most welcome respite. Each new challenge features new settings, new dangers, new puzzles. They can become quite taxing and fraught with frustration. But that’s alright, because each of them is also set apart from the others by this singular moment of reprieve. Like Hercules, each new task may be a novel and difficult experience, but the hero is able to feel safe and comfortable for a brief while before trekking out once more.
A Shortcut to Pacing)
Even the most exciting of stories needs moments of calm. A story that is only made up of intense action will soon fail to have any impact, it will lose its voice within its own noise. There has to be variety, there has to be escalation and de-escalation.
And returning to a familiar setting is one of the quickest ways to bring the tempo back to a calm state. Soothing background music can help, soft voices can help, warm colors can help…but the best thing of all to calm the audience’s nerves is to put them in walls that are well-known and safe. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, you want them to have a place that just feels like home.
And one medium that is especially able to make a place feel familiar and safe is the television show. By having episodes strewn over a period of years, developers have great opportunity to repeat settings until they are second-nature to us. And when one of those familiar places is reserved for scenes that are always calm and happy, then the viewer starts to feel better just by being there.
And so in Star Trek: The Next Generation a favorite haunt is Ten-Forward, the futuristic bar where characters come to share a drink and a little bit of gossip. Other places on the ship are often subject to laser blasts and torpedoes, but Ten-Forward, by contrast, is usually the setting where characters only come after all the chaos is past. It is a place for quietly reminiscing, for exploring relationships, for casual words.
Episodes of MASH might be fraught with wartime violence, overbearing stress, and the looming specter of death…but regularly the cast will come back together for a friendly game of Poker in Hawkeye’s tent. No matter how chaotic things are elsewhere, the Poker night immediately resets the tone to something calm and safe.
Every episode of the old Mission: Impossible series is fraught with spies, deception, and danger. But each episode also begins in a calm apartment where the team methodically plan out their disguises and test their equipment. It is only a brief segment in each episode, but it always allows the audience to settle into the plot from a familiar setting.
A Shifted Perspective)
However, regularly returning to a familiar scene does not only have to be used to reset the audience’s emotions. Sometimes returning to an old haunt can actually be used to illustrate just how different the characters within it have become. Yes the setting is familiar, but the spirit of it feels entirely new.
Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in A Christmas Carol. Throughout the tale Ebenezer keeps leaving and returning to this place, and each time the room is completely the same as before. And it is that sameness that makes his own personal change stand out in stark relief.
We are first introduced to it when he comes home from a long day of work, sets the many locks on its door, and takes a supper of gruel in the dark. It is a mean and meager place, thrifty to the point of oppressiveness, and it is in perfect harmony with the man that lives in it.
Then the visitations from the spirits begin, and Christmas Past takes Ebenezer down a painful walk of his own memories. We see his life laced with one regret after another, until he refuses to continue the journey any further, and forcibly returns back to his bedroom. He is filled with deep relief to be back home, and suddenly we see the room how he sees it: not meager and dark, but close and safe. In its confinement he feels secure. It is his fort to keep out all the outside world, and all the pain of his past. For the first time, we pity him.
Next comes the visit of Christmas Present, who shows him how much more mirth and love is occurring outside of these walls on Christmas day. Scrooge finally starts to long for more, and the dankness of his hovel is emphasized even more than before.
Finally Christmas Future comes, and of all the places that he could show Ebenezer, he shows him the future version of this very same bedroom. It is the room, after Ebenezer has died.
This is the only time the room actually changes, and we are shocked to find that it is able to become even more bleak than before, with bed curtains stolen and a single sheet laid over a solitary, lonely corpse.
And then, after that moment of absolute darkness, we return to the room once more as it is today, and by contrast it now seems a place of life and hope. In fact the sun is raising, and the windows are thrown open to let that light in. Ebenezer is still alive, and he still has a chance to make this room a place of joy.
A single, solitary room, a room that does cannot speak a single word of dialogue. Yet so much is said in the many different ways we behold it.
I am trying my hand at writing a single location that returns multiple times in The Favored Son. The centrifuge has been visited twice already, and each time under very different contexts. The first time is at the very beginning, when things are still relatively calm and carefree. The youth are quibbling about leadership, but there aren’t any serious stakes at play.
The second visitation takes place after the youth have been attacked and retreated to the centrifuge for safety. Suddenly its annoying complexities become securities. It is a place of safety, a place that feels an essential to survival. Again the students are conflicted about questions of leadership, but there is a desperate urgency to it now.
There is a third visit to the centrifuge yet to come, and this one will occur when the students are in a place of utter defeat. The brokenness of the place’s columns should carry a significance then that was never felt before. The question of leadership will finally be put to rest. It will be a scene of old ideas and hopes being laid to rest as well, while a bleaker dawn arises.
Before we get to that, though, we’ve got to actually have the youth be broken. I’ll be getting into that with my next post on Thursday. As you read that entry, consider how I am setting things up to make the next visit to the centrifuge feel fundamentally different than any time before.
Less than one year before her death, Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman was published to considerable controversy. First and foremost was the concern that Lee, in her old age, might have been manipulated into publishing the novel. And even if this was untrue, the novel itself ruffled many of its readers.
Because it was not actually a new novel, as had been suggested, it was actually a first draft version of Lee’s only other published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And, as it goes with first drafts, this version was a far less polished experience, in dire need of editing.
There was one bright side, though, and it was that this first draft version provided a fascinating insight to just how different that beloved classic might have been. Because Go Set a Watchman is not merely an unrefined version of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a drastically different beast altogether. Central characters, including the all-important Atticus Finch, are changed from one telling to the next. In To Kill a Mockingbird he was shown to be an honest man trying to do his best in a dishonest world. But in the first draft (Go Set a Watchman) we are disillusioned by his portrayal as fundamentally racist. And all these changes add up, creating a story with very different themes than were in its final iteration.
Evidently Harper Lee had more than one idea for how to tell her story and more than one message that she wished to convey. It is easy to assume that a large, literary novel would encompass the entirety of an author’s opinion on a matter, but clearly this is not always the case.
In fact, famous directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott have proved that their original work did not encompass their entire vision, by revisiting their prior films and altering them. “Director’s Cuts” and “Re-Releases” have become particularly popular of late, though they have their roots far back in cinema, such as when Alfred Hitchcock recreated his film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cecil B. DeMille redid his Ten Commandments.
In many of these cases, Directors have stated that they were simply unable to capture their vision as originally intended, either because of studio interference or because of outdated technology. Sometimes these changes are appreciated by audiences, but other times they are reviled.
Other times Directors have simply been of two minds as to which version of a story they should use. Thus there were two endings filmed, edited, and scored for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. These endings are not simply different takes on the same idea, either, each one dramatically shifts the outcomes for its characters. Both fit well with the rest of the film, though, and there is a case to be made for each. But of course, the film had to only have a single, official version in its theatrical release, and so the creators settled on just one ending, regulating the other to the Special Features section of the DVD.
Pacing Back and Forth)
What if a story didn’t have to have just “one official version” though? What if it could be an idea that the author goes over multiple times, from all sorts of different angles? And what if each iteration was just as valid as all of the others?
The Beginner’s Guide is a collection of short games, each of which represents the main character’s way of processing his feelings in life. Thus they are games that are less about being fun, and more about dwelling on a specific state of mind.
At another point there is a group of games that belong together in a series. It begins with the player in a prison, one that is filled with nice, living room furniture and a window. That’s all there is to it, and then the next experience loads. This one brings the player to the same room, but suddenly the walls and ceiling start receding, creating a massive room, one that is filled to the brim with layers upon layers of this same IKEA-style furniture. Next things are inverted, and the walls of your prison are covered in wallpaper that looks like the sky you had previously been seeing outside. Next the player is in the prison room upside down, with the furniture up on the ceiling. And then, in the last one, the player enters a telephone booth and speaks with their past self, who is still stuck in the prison. They encourage the past self that they’ll get out of there one day, and then the sequence ends.
Thus it is a collection of experiences, all around the same idea, but each with its own beginning and ending. Together they allow the creator to come at the same problem from every possible direction, and to give voice to all of the muddled, interwoven elements of what it feels like to be trapped. There is an honesty to this, as in real life our experiences are often much too complex to be expressed in just one way.
Which might seem like a very unique way to tell a story, but actually it’s not. How many times did Arthur Conan Doyle get to revisit the great detective theme? He got to explore his one detective in as many different situations as he could imagine, sometimes creating cases that hewed very closely to one another, but presenting a slightly different possibility in each.
Or Isaac Asimov crafting one tale after another about science fiction and advanced technology and robots? Stories where he can explore one possible version of the future, and then in his next piece explore yet another.
What about Mozart writing symphony after symphony, concert after concert, more than 600 pieces in less than thirty-five years, and still finding new expression in them clear through to the end?
No, it is not unusual at all for a creator to revisit the same well over and over, and still find something new to say each time.
There are reasons why marketing campaigns only ever want there to be one, clear version of a product. But from a purely creative standpoint, there’s no reason why your one piece of work has to be the final and total measure of all you have to say on the matter.
Given the freedom of the blog-structure, I’ve realized that I have a unique opportunity with my latest story The Favored Son. I have had two different versions of the story in my head, and I could potentially publish them both.
I haven’t yet decided if I will go that route or not. I want to finish my current version as it is, and only then decide if there are still important things left unsaid. Perhaps I’ll be able to get enough of the old version to come through in the new iteration that any further work would feel redundant. Perhaps I won’t want to write an entire second version, but rather just publish a critical scene or two from what it would have been. Or perhaps I will, in fact, give it the full treatment as soon as I’m done with the first. The point is there are no restrictions. I have my ideas, and I, like any other creator, have the privilege to develop them at my pleasure. Come back on Thursday to see where I go with that in my next section of The Favored Son.
Sometimes a story doesn’t go the way that you expected. Ideas that seemed so solid become mush when you try to write them out, or the pacing that felt perfect in an outline of a thousand words feels wrong when expanded to a novel of a hundred-thousand.
On Thursday I posted the third section of my latest story, in which the main character ruminated over his Order’s philosophies, had a tense encounter with the antagonist of the tale, and then moved on to “the Trials” (a series of tests meant to transition the rising generation into the seat of power).
And originally, those trials were a very simple affair. The pupils were going to have contests against one another, by which they would establish the hierarchy for their new Order. I started writing the introductory scene of the Trials in that way, but found myself gradually typing more and more slowly until my fingers came to a halt. All the momentum was gone, and I just couldn’t bring myself to push forward with the story anymore.
So instead I tried to identify why this scene felt so wrong all of a sudden. After a little examination I identified two major issues.
First of all, it felt so very, very generic. Students undergoing a competition against one another has been done many times already. From the graduating class at star fleet academy to the witches and wizards performing in the Triwizard Tournament to the hotshot antics in Top Gun to the savage life-or-death challenges of The Hunger Games.
It could have been a fine trope to include if I had had something unique to offer in it, some way to push the idea forward, but I didn’t. My plan was for the hero student to spar with the villain student, widening a rift between them and pulling the rest of the pupils over to one side or the other. It served my planned story arcs pretty well, but it wasn’t very riveting when it came time to start writing it.
And secondly, the scene where I introduced the Trials just didn’t have the right tone. There is something inherently enjoyable about a tournament, and the “fun” that I was trying put into the opening scene just didn’t match with the scenes that had come before. I was writing the elders as introducing the Trials with a jovial, ringmaster sort of grandeur, and it was in awkward contrast to the deep unease that I had just been describing in Tharol. Every moment of the story thus far had been weighed by a particular gravity. Things had been either serious, contemplative, or laced with suspicion. I needed a scene that expanded upon or brought closure to that tension, not fly in the face of it.
But How to Fix It)
Which explains how I rejected the original concept for the Trials, but how did I end up at the far more shocking scene of a Master rushing at his acolytes with a sword?!
Frankly there wasn’t anything deliberate about it. I just stared blankly at my computer screen, wondering what it was the story really needed in this moment. To help get the ideas flowing I read back over the paragraphs that had been leading up to this moment, and again noted the sense of rising tension in them. I was writing this story like it was expecting something explosive to happen now. As I have already mentioned, at this point in the tale Tharol has been showing a deep unease, the tension in him is mounting, and now would be an excellent time for it burst.
There was a second reason for going this route as well, one that was far more pragmatic. The story needed to get moving, plain and simple. It had had a pretty slow intro, and if it continued along at the same pace it would take forever to get completed. Like Luke Skywalker finding his childhood home suddenly burned to the ground, my story needed a solid kick in the pants.
With those two elements combined (the need to answer the sense of rising tension and the need to thrust the story into its main action) it was clear that this next scene needed to be quite visceral and shocking. And as this was a cryptic Order, where any strange practice might be lurking around the corner, and as I had already suggested that there was always a mysteriously complete transition from one generation to the next, the idea of a war between the students and the teachers came quite naturally.
Where that Leaves Me Now)
But now that I’ve written it and published it I have to live with it. It may have been the right choice for the scene, but I need to make sure it is the right choice for all the rest of the story as well. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure where the story goes from here. I had a loose outline to begin with, and now it has been shredded.
In this situation I have to be okay with letting go of anything that I had planned before. If I try to write the story as originally intended, and also be true to this new arc I have found myself on, then the story is going to be handicapped in both directions.
Now I don’t have to dump everything I had before. Rather I am looking at each individual piece, evaluating if it still has a place in the new arc, and either keeping it, altering it, or tossing it. I’m finding that there are still a few core ideas that I would like to keep, but they will need to be a bit different now to make sense.
Since I won’t be keeping everything, some large holes are going to remain in my outline, and those need to be filled with something new. I’ll use the altered pieces that I retained from the first outline, building off them until the gaps between them have been healed.
Will the new story be better? Well, I hope so. But I honestly can’t say, because I haven’t seen it yet. I think it stands in a more interesting place at this moment, so hopefully that will pay off in the end. My greatest fear is that my next section will come across for exactly what it is: a story reforming itself, establishing entirely new bones at an angle to the old ones. Come back on Thursday to see whether this new beast takes shape in a smooth or disjointed way, and whether it is better for having undergone the change.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the nameless narrator is silently deliberating the plight of an unsuccessful local actor. Just as he comes to this particular piece of consideration, his companion, the ingenious detective C. Auguste Dupin, interjects to say that yes, the local actor talent’s would be better matched to a role in the variety theater.
Understandably, the narrator is confounded that Dupin could have known exactly the matter that he was privately thinking on. Dupin explains that it was merely a matter of simple deduction. Fifteen minutes ago a fruiter had stumbled into the narrator after tripping on the poorly cobbled street. From that point Dupin had anticipated the logical train of thought that his companion would follow, and used little clues to confirm his theories, such as when the narrator would mutter something under his breath, look heavenward, or display a particular expression on his face.
This same novelty is played out to much the same effect in two Sherlock Holmes cases, where he logically follows the thoughts of his companion Watson. It is a bit of a stretch, of course. Only in the perfect world of fiction would one be able to so perfectly predict the exact train of thought of another. Such a thing could never occur in the real world.
A Magical Joke)
Or could it?
When real-life magicians pull back the curtain and reveal the methods of their tricks, they invariably all come to the point that magic is nothing more than the art of misdirection. They conceal where the triumphant reveal is coming from by distracting everyone with something else instead. So they not only know what you aren’t thinking about (the solution), but also what you are thinking about (the red herring).
And this is not the only practice where a performer reads the minds of others. Many jokes are built upon directing the listener’s thought to one conclusion, only to surprise them with another. The surprise at the end only works, though, if you know that the audience is thinking about the wrong conclusion. Consider the example of this joke:
A young woman was checking out at a grocery store.
The cashier scanned her products: one microwave dinner, one bottle of soda, one pillow, and one toothbrush.
"You must be single," he smiled at her.
"Well...yes, actually I am!" she laughed. "How could you tell?"
"Because you're ugly."
Now this isn’t actually funny because of the punchline at the end. It’s funny because of the second sentence, where it directs your thoughts in a particular direction. Hearing a list of one item, one item, one item has us logically conclude that the cashier knows she is single because she is only buying solitary items. And because we have been carefully put into this state of mind, then the punchline actually comes across as surprising, and by extension funny.
Directing the Reader)
So yes, it might be unrealistic to follow a person’s train of thought under normal circumstances, but you can do it if you have laid the track for that train to follow. Once you have a person’s attention, you have the opportunity to steer their mind to a place of your choosing. And knowing where their thoughts now are, you may subvert or confirm their expectations at will.
This is why the final scene between the Joker and Batman is so effective at the end of The Dark Knight. In this film our hero has been foiled by his nemesis time and time again. The Joker has expertly pulled the strings in one game after another, outwitted any who have tried to stop him, and hurt people that we thought were untouchable. All of his prior successes trains us to assume that he will only continue to be successful.
Not only this, but his antics, though terrible, are also fascinating. We find ourselves morbidly curious to see how each of his little experiments will play out. Will Batman break his one rule to save the woman he loves? Which will he choose between personal desire and the heart of the city? What does it take to topple a paragon of good?
And under this context we come to his plot at the end. There is a ferry filled with everyday, working-class citizens, and there is one filled with convicts. Each has been fitted with a bomb, and each boat has been given the detonator to the other boat. So who will destroy the other first? The hardened criminals, because that’s the obvious choice? Or the citizens, because their hearts are really just as self-interested as anyone else?
Joker has had his way every time before, so our intuition is that he will do so again. And the conundrum he has set up, while unethical, is fascinating. Both of these facts leave us expecting to see it resolve in one ship blowing up or the other.
And because the film has so carefully maneuvered us to this expectation, it is now able to surprise us. Because neither of the two possibilities that we anticipate are what come to pass.
Rather than preserve themselves, each boat decides that they would rather spare the other, even though it might mean their own undoing. No one dies at all. It is an incredibly impactful moment, but it only works because it catches us by surprise. If from the beginning we had been thinking that this outcome was possible, we would not be so moved when it happens. By controlling our minds, by knowing what we were thinking, The Dark Knight made a moment deeply meaningful.
In my own story I have just introduced Tharol’s conundrum: he depends on the order for support, but also taking issue with some of that order’s tenets. He wants to be a good student, but he just can’t make sense of these philosophies.
This line of thought is going to be continued in my next piece, encouraging my readers to grapple with these questions themselves, and to anticipate the story to continue its ponderous, theoretical bent.
But it’s not going to. The story is going to take a dramatic shift that I intend to have be extremely shocking. So much so, that it will hopefully be some time before the audience realizes that we’re still dealing with the same philosophical questions from before, just from a much more active, hands-on approach.
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back we watch as the core heroes are divided into two groups, and we follow each one’s different arc until they converge back together at the end. Thus Luke and R2-D2 travel to Dagobah where Luke undergoes tutelage from Jedi Master Yoda, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are pursued in a long, extended chase, pursued by the relentless reach of Darth Vader.
But while these are the main arcs of the story, we don’t even get started on them until we’re more than a half hour into the film. Instead we open with an extended prologue, one where our heroes are trying to survive in an ice-planet’s secret base. Luke is nearly lost, but manages to survive with some newly-introduced force powers and the help of his friends. Then Imperial drones locate evidence of the base, and finally the Empire arrives out of hyperspace to eradicate the Rebels. A massive battle takes place before the Rebels must retreat, in which our main characters split into the two parties mentioned above.
Does having such a long introductory sequence serve a purpose then? Could it have been removed or abbreviated, to make a tighter, more efficient story? Given how well regarded that film’s story is, it would seem that audience’s weren’t upset for the prolonged intro. In fact it was such a successful formula that Star Wars repeated the same pattern with the Han Solo rescue sequence at the start of Return of the Jedi.
An Old Pattern)
But it isn’t as if Star Wars was unusual to employ this sort of story-telling structure. James Bond and Ethan Hunt always open their spy thrillers with some heist that introduces the characters and world before getting into the real meat of the latest conspiracy. The Matrix shows a relatively unimportant run-in between Trinity and the agents before we’re introduced to Neo. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone details Harry’s regular life a full three chapters (more than a sixth of the entire book) before he even finds out that he’s a wizard.
It isn’t as though Star Wars was breaking new ground with its pattern either. The Lord of the Rings novel, published two-and-a-half decades prior opens with a birthday party that has virtually nothing to do with its epic saga. Bilbo could have easily given Frodo the ring in a much more succinct way. And we can go back even further. A Tale of Two Cities, written two centuries earlier, spends its entire first chapter only laying the backdrop of the story. Then it spends nearly the entire second chapter with flavor-text, until we finally reach some dialogue that is relevant to the greater story right before the beginning of chapter three.
Clearly these stories are doing something right, though, for these are some of the most beloved, enjoyable tales of all time!
When I try to think of stories that don’t utilize this particular pattern, I realize there is a set of examples from after the centuries-old novels of Charles Dickens, but before the recent films of modern Hollywood.
Older films, those made in the first half of the 20th Century, were far more likely to take off with the main arcs right from the get-go. The Magnificent Seven opens with us seeing the main villain and his gang of bandits oppressing the city that will hire gunslingers to protect them. Charade opens with a man being thrown off a train, whose death will catalyze everything that follows. West Side Story opens with a musical number that summarizes the tension between the two gangs that is quickly driving towards serious violence.
So what is it that each of these films has in common? They are from the era where films featured the credits at the beginning of the movie, and would play the main themes from the film’s score while they were being displayed. This created a critical period for the audience to settle into the mood of the story, even before the first act began.
Later films moved the credits to the end, and obviously novels have always had the ability to skip straight to the pages of Chapter One. In these mediums it becomes necessary to start from a much colder opening. Thus we see in these examples the wide use of an introductory sequence just to get the audience warmed up to the story and its styles before really getting underway.
Go to an orchestra and notice how the musicians tuning their instruments prepares you to receive their symphony. Or go to a rock band and see how the smaller group that opens the show gets you pumped up for the main event. Notice how television shows often include a short title introduction where they play the main theme and show short clips to get you into the right mindset.
Audience members are coming in from any variety of contexts when they first set down to a story. Because of this, novels, films, television shows, and music all make use of an extended introduction to get the audience out of that prior context, and into the story’s. By the time the initial heist, or musical number, or side plot has resolved, the audience is well tuned to the story’s rhythms, and can now give the main arcs their full attention.
Of course this is not a rule. Not every story takes such an approach, and not every one needs to. Perhaps your story really does need to start off at full force right from the start, but it is well worth considering whether the technique will help you with what you are trying to accomplish or not.
On Thursday I decided to experiment with this structure, having an entire first chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the story’s narrative. But what it did do was introduce the world, the tone, and two of the central characters. In a short story this sort of introductory period might not have been the best fit, but I enjoyed the practice.
On Thursday I’ll be posting the second piece of that story, and we’ll see whether the time spent in the introduction helps the rest of it move more smoothly or not. Come back then to see how it turns out.
Eddie Mannix should not take the new job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. He should retain his faith in the magic of cinema instead, for the silly stories they make in their studios really do make a difference in the lives of those that view them, and he must never forget that fact.
These are the great truths in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, and I can pick out the solitary scene where I became completely convinced of them. It happened about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Mannix was tempted once more by the Lockheed executive to leave behind the “kid stuff” of Hollywood for a real job.
Up until this moment the Lockheed executive has seemed to have some valid points, but then he does something undeniably slimy. In a previous meeting he offered Mannix a cigarette, to which Mannix had responded by saying he was trying to quit. Quitting the unhealthy habit is important to his wife, to his family that he cares for, and a way that he genuinely wants to improve himself. Here, in their later meeting, the Lockheed executive can see that Mannix is conflicted, and once again offers a cigarette with a knowing smile.
Just like that all of the valid points of the Lockheed executive become only the cunning arguments of a devil. This man does not have Mannix’s best interests at heart at all. He is willing to compromise and manipulate him, to use the man’s weakness against him in the guise of friendship. Mannix turns him down. Turns him down for the smoke, turns him down for the job. I cheered him on for it, and I bought into the same realization that he did at that moment: that the make-believe of movies is more real than all the cynicism of the “real world.”
But then, as I thought about it, hadn’t I just been manipulated myself? The movie wanted me to feel a certain way about Mannix’s choice between dreams and practicality, and so it had intentionally cast the voice of practicality in a body that was slimy and conniving. Couldn’t it have used the same trick in the opposite direction and just as easily persuaded me the other way?
Devils in Angel’s Clothing?)
Now let’s bring in Exhibit B: George Bailey. This man is the main character of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he finds himself caught in a very similar conundrum as Eddie Mannix. All his life he has burned with an intense desire to chase his dreams, to build wonders, to travel the world. But unlike Mannix, he is not actually living that dream. At each step practicality has gotten in his way instead. Duty to family and friends has kept him far from the life he wishes to lead, and he’s grown very depressed as a result.
Then, in the film’s final act, a charming little man appears to convince him that the life of wonder he’s always wanted has been in front of him all along. Clarence the angel is sweet, innocent, and loyal. He speaks with a simple, uncomplicated wisdom, and uses it to make clear the great benefit one accomplishes just by doing their duty.
Is it really so wrong to make sacrifices for your family after all?
By the end of the film George Bailey is convinced and so are we. The film’s best trick is temporarily severing him from the life that he had. The sudden loss of wife and children cuts both he and the audience very deep, and we rejoice with him when they are reunited. We want nothing more than for him to never lose them again.
And as with Hail, Caesar, we have been manipulated into agreeing with the film’s core thesis.
Bias, Bias Everywhere)
So…each of these films manipulate our emotions to get us to agree with their message. But honestly, if we’re going to take offense at that, then we’re going to have to throw out essentially every story ever told.
Just consider how elements like swelling music in a film tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the emotions that the director wishes you to feel in that moment. Consider how Shakespeare’s heroes give a passionate soliloquy to win the audience over to their cause. Consider how the author lays bare their characters’ minds to prove the virtue or vice behind their actions. All of these make declarative statements of what is right to think about a situation, and what is wrong. Just as with real people, every story is going to have a bias, and to ask them not to is to to ask them not to be made by people.
Every now and then there is a story that tries to take a neutral stance, tries to show both sides of an argument equally. But even then there are biases towards what “equal” means.
Turn it Over to the Jury)
Any story that has a message is going to frame it in whatever way best supports that message. Some stories are going to have an overall message that you do not agree with, and are going to utilize character archetypes that you feel are incorrect and even harmful. And other stories will give an overall message that you do agree with, and utilizes character archetypes that you feel are fair and accurate.
But these are actually the exception. Far more common are the stories that will fall somewhere in between. Stories that you only partially agree with the message of, or that you do agree with, but still use archetypes that you still feel are incorrect and even harmful. I have read books and seen films that I liked every piece leading towards the central theme, but still did not like the central theme itself.
And this is fine.
People are not so delicate that they cannot handle mixed messages. You aren’t going to break someone by challenging their preconceived notions and you’re not required to coddle their every opinion. Every day people are exposed to conflicting opinions, and we have learned how to parse through the pieces, reject the ones we disagree with, and hold to the ones that we believe to be true.
In the moment we might feel that Hail, Caesar makes a good point, and we might feel that It’s a Wonderful Life makes a good point as well. But after we’ve had some time, been able to weigh them against our own conscience, we’ll still make our own decision on the matter. In fact, we might find that we can believe in a balance between both practicality and dreams.
And so I don’t feel guilty that in my last story I influenced the reader to reject the father’s ideals by painting him in a negative light. That was my archetype to support my central message, and you can take or reject it as you feel fit. On Thursday I will post the first entry in my new story, and in that chapter you can bet I will already be casting my characters in positive and negative lights, trying to influence you to side with some and against others. Pay attention to how I do that, and also consider how you are doing the same in your own stories.
There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.
At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.
It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.
Thus the the line
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”
in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws. And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.
Echoes of the Past)
This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.
Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin
And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.
But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!
And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.
The Perfect Storm)
In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.
In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.
Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.
With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.