Who Even Are You?

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The Mysterious Man)

The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!

And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!

But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.

Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.

The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?

At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.

Suspect Again)

Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?

This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.

Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.

Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.

Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.

Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.

And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!

The Pleasure of Being Unsure)

Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.

Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.

In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.

But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.

My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.

Something Old, Something New

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A New Voice)

Romeo and Juliet has been a classic since its premier in 1597, and like many of Shakespeare’s works it has been reimagined countless different times. What if the story were set in a different timeline? What if the characters’ sexes were swapped? What if the ending was tweaked? But typically these reinterpretations remain closely tied to their original source, they feel like a branch off of its trunk.

Every now and then, though, a reimagining comes along that is notably different. And one such example occurred in 1957 with the release of the Broadway musical West Side Story. West Side Story is unmistakably based on Romeo and Juliet and shares many plot developments with it, but it really does feel like its own thing. There are two main reasons that I can identify for why this is the case.

The first is that the world of West Side Story is completely reimagined from the ground up. All of the dialogue is original, with even the most classic of lines (“Wherefore art thou Romeo?”) replaced by entirely new speech. New characters like Officer Krupke are incorporated, even though they don’t have any direct analogue in Romeo and Juliet. Also entirely new plot points are added, such as the council where the two gangs decide the terms of their rumble.

In short, nothing from the original story was deemed sacred, and none of it had to be adhered to if it didn’t fit West Side Story’s new setting. The feud in West Side Story is based on racism in New York, not on a royal family quarrel, and that fundamental change meant that many connecting elements of the story would also need to be altered to remain consistent. The writers of West Side Story made all those changes without reservation. In fact, when all is said and done, it hardly feels appropriate to call West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at all. It is its own thing, with the ties to Romeo and Juliet being little more than an homage.

The other reason why I believe West Side Story stands apart is because it is designed within a completely different genre. Romeo and Juliet was a classic tragedy, while West Side Story is a modern musical. The integration of big band music, dazzling dance choreography, and soulful lyrics take West Side Story beyond just looking and sounding different from Romeo and Juliet, now it feels different as well.

Unrecognizable Familiarity)

Perhaps an even more drastic reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story was the 2013 film Warm Bodies. Like West Side Story, this film takes the tale into a totally new genre, this time zombie horror. And once again it throws out all of the dialogue and relationships and characters that don’t make sense in that world, and incorporates new ones that do. So dramatic of a shift was this film that I didn’t even realize it was a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet until it reproduced the famous balcony scene in its own amusing way.

The Lion is King is also a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic: Hamlet. It features the king-father who has been murdered by the evil uncle, a son whose duty is to right that wrong, and a long period of soul-searching before he is willing to face that calling. Virtually everything else, though, is dismissed for an original narrative, just like our other two examples.

When I try to think of what one should call stories like West Side Story, Warm Bodies, and The Lion King, I really don’t think terms like adaptation and re-imagining do justice to how distinct they are from the original material. I think a better term might be that they are a reincarnation. They have held on to a few key characteristics of the original, but everything else has been conceived as an entirely new body.

My Own Invention)

I’ve been trying to do something similar with my latest story: The Salt Worms. It’s a story that is molded after the traditional hero’s quest. Our main character, Nathan Prewitt, has traveled across the entire United States, bringing with him a weapon to destroy the giant sand striker worm that keeps the entire populace pinned down. This is his great calling and burden, much like Frodo carrying the one ring to Mount Doom.

In fact, Lord of the Rings is the story that I am most trying to “reincarnate” with The Salt Worms. Our main character carries an item of awesome power, he has a faithful companion, Manuel Castillo, and those that learn of his possession want to steal it from them.

But the differences between Lord of the Rings and my story are far more numerous than their similarities. Rather than trying to recreate that classic I am throwing out all the things that don’t fit, and adding things that do. I am also changing genres, trading out high fantasy for post-apocalyptic near-future. The changes are so vast that I doubt most people would pick up on the connection to Lord of the Rings without having me point it out to them.

Now my little story isn’t going to begin to make the same sort of waves as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, nor will it be as revolutionary a reincarnation as West Side Story or The Lion King, but it’s been a fun exercise in how to pay homage to a classic while still remaining a story that is entirely my own. Keep an eye out as I continue The Salt Worms, and see if you can pick out more ways that I reference the original while putting my own twist on it as well.

Always Opposition

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Sad Song)

My parents grew up during the height of film musicals and so our video library was full of classics like The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and West Side Story. Of all these films, West Side Story was my favorite. It was cool. It had action. It had good guys and bad guys.

The only thing that upset me was how sad the ending was! Tony and Maria want to get out of the ghetto, and they get so close to accomplishing that dream, but then at the end a simple miscommunication dashes all their hopes to pieces.

Every time we watched it I would somehow hope that the ending would change. This time would be the time that Riff and Bernardo decide to keep it a fair fight instead of pulling out their knives. This time the Jets wouldn’t torment Anita until she lies to Tony that Maria is dead. This time Tony would hold on to faith just a little bit longer, rather than running into the night, calling for Chino to gun him down.

But of course, none of those alternate-endings ever played out. The same tragic tale of self-destruction was the same each time. It had to, because that was the whole point of the story. West Side Story without its sad moments would be absent its whole message about the cycle of violence. If the Jets and the Sharks ever make friends with one another, then that’s the end of the movie right there. West Side Story is expertly crafted to make us want peace, but to bring those feelings alive in us it can never have any peace of its own.

The Need for Conflict)

Much has already been written about the need for conflict in a story. Opposition is considered the lifeblood of every narrative, whether based in a villain, or a situation, or even within the protagonist’s personal flaws.

This is represented in a very interesting way with the Star Wars series. Here there is an all-connecting power, the Force, which comes in two distinct flavors: light and dark. It is therefore not strictly a good power, it fuels both the heroes and the villains. In fact, whenever one side grows more powerful than the other the Force seems to surge to the other side, keeping things in balance.

This is a most fascinating construct. It seems to imply that the Force is almost a sentient being, one that wants there to be epic stories, legendary heroes, and diabolical villains. In short, the Force wants what every audience wants as well.

The concept of the force is derived from real-world ancient eastern philosophy, such as the notion of yin-yang, which insists that opposition, good and evil, must live together, and only through their interplay is life able to exist. Even western philosophies have similar ideas, such as in Christianity the pairing of a divine spirit with a carnal body to create a life that is constantly at odds with itself, yet which is able flourish and grow through the conflict.

Many stories have explored the idea of conflict being necessary for happiness. In the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, Henry “Rocky” Valentine finds himself shot to death after a robbery, and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is immediately granted. He is amazed that he somehow made his way to heaven, and for a while enjoys getting every break he couldn’t have in life. Money, luck, romance…it all comes effortlessly and on-demand.

After a while Rocky gets sick of life having no edge, though. He wants some risk, some danger. His host says they ought to be able to accommodate that. Things can be arranged so that Rocky will lose a few times at the roulette wheel, or he could be chased by some policemen that he will forever evade. Rocky says that’s no good, he’ll know it’s all a sham. He wants real danger and real stakes. He wants conflict.

Rocky becomes so bored that at the end of the episode he asks to be let out of heaven and to go to the other place instead. At this point his host laughs, and announces that Rocky has been in “the other place” all this while. Rocky’s hell is to live without any opposition.

Make the Conflict Real)

Unfortunately some writers have taken the lesson that “every story needs conflict” too far and made everything into a conflict. The mentor is gruff and doesn’t want to train the new talent, the kids at the school are jerks until the new kid proves his worth to them, the super-secret organization isn’t going to admit the applicant until she gains their trust. Of course, that’s all well and fine so long as your story’s central conflict is actually about reawakening the disillusioned mentor or befriending the kids at school or gaining admission to the secret society.

So it works for Daniel LaRusso to be bullied at his new High School, because The Karate Kid is all about him gaining the power to stand against those miscreants. And it works for there to be tension between Paddy and Tommy in Warrior, because their story is all about how a father makes amends to his son while coaching him. And it works in The Pursuit of Happyness for Chris Gardner to face stiff competition when trying to land a job as a stockbroker, as that story is about the man’s struggle to lift himself out of poverty.

But if these things aren’t what your story is actually about, then don’t shoehorn in meaningless scruples that distract from your main conflict. The 1997 film Men in Black is about James Edwards being welcomed into an intelligence organization that deals with extraterrestrial threats. Thankfully the writers of this film understood that the central conflict is not about James getting into the top-secret organization, but the enemy he must track down after he has done so. So rather than put James through a meaningless uphill battle to even land the job, they have the organization reach out to recruit him all on its own. It lets us skip past any unnecessary drama and get right to the meat of the story.

Applying the Concept)

In my own story I just introduced a new conflict when Nathan Prewitt started to see that the leaders of New Denver weren’t enthused about destroying the nearby giant worm. But they aren’t be contrary for no reason. As the story goes on, their opposition is going to become even more pronounced, and it will be the last and final opposition that Nathan must overcome in his quest to kill the beast.

In short, every story needs conflict, but the conflict needs to actually be meaningful to the heart of the story. Identify what it is your protagonist is really fighting against, and spend your time on that battle, rather than on meaningless periphery battles.

Transition to Flashback

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The First Recollections)

120 years ago, when film was still in its infancy, the first flashback sequence was conceived of, in the french film Histoire d’un Crime. Before the film gets to its flashback, though, it opens on a burglar breaking into a house, killing a man, and robbing the place. He is arrested the next day while enjoying wine with friends at a café, and as he sleeps in his jail cell the painted wall above him pulls away, revealing an inner world of his own memories. The flashback. The audience watches how the man once had a happy, family-centric life, but became enslaved to alcohol, until he finally performed the crimes we saw at the beginning of the film.

To be honest, it’s a very clunky transition, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had already been told this was a flashback, I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow along. Contrast that to the far superior flashback we get at the start of Citizen Kane.

In that film, news reporter Jerry Thompson is trying to dig into the life of Charles Foster Kane, after the business and political magnate has died. Thompson’s research leads him to the memoirs of Walter Thatcher, a banker who established a trust for Kane when he was still a boy. Thompson reads the following line in Thatcher’s memoir:

I first encountered Mr Kane in 1871.

The camera pans across the line very slowly, soft, tinkling music plays, and then the page fades away into a scene of a boy playing with his sled in the snow. Unlike the burglar’s story being acted out on the wall above his cell, I immediately understood that I was being taken back into Kane’s history.

Of course, Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, had the benefit of forty years between these two films, during which time cinema had learned many fundamentals of how to communicate its transitions to the viewer. Soft tinkling music, a blurred frame, fading from the image of an adult to that of a child; these are all cues that cinema learned for how to communicate a transition to the past, some of which Orson Welles used.

Coming Back Again)

Of course, transitioning to the past or a dream or anything else is one thing, but what if you need to come back again? How do we signal when we are back in the regular, current world?

Well, the most obvious choice is to reverse the events that brought you into the alternate scene to begin with. So consider the example of the 2007 animated film Ratatouille, when the famous food critic Anton Ego tastes the titular dish cooked by the star of the movie, Remy. Anton clicks his pen, ready to write out his critiques, then puts the first bite of food into his mouth. Suddenly his face drops all of its tension, his eyes go wide, and the camera zooms out from him, exiting through the similarly-drooping eyes of a young boy in his mother’s kitchen.

We understand that this is the same character, Anton Ego, as a youth. It doesn’t take much to convince us of the fact, because by this point flashback sequences have become so numerous and varied that audiences just know to expect them. Anyway, we see how Anton’s mother makes him a dish of ratatouille to comfort him after he scraped his knee on a bike. The young Anton takes his first bite of the dish, smiles at the camera, which then zooms into his eye and back to the scene of old Anton sitting in the restaurant. The exact process that brought us into the flashback is played in reverse to return to us to the modern day.

Text Transitions)

So far we’ve been looking at transitions in film, but how about in a written medium? Well, because it is written, it is possible to call the transition out far more explicitly. You can write “seventy years ago” as a header before the flashback starts, you can say “Egon was taken back to a moment as a young boy,” and you can return to the original scene with “back in the present day.” In short, the written medium allows much more explicit transitions which don’t require an audience to be trained to interpret them.

But sometimes a story wants to do things without being so blunt. Visual mediums are so prevalent in our society that often a story wants to emulate their nuances, including their smooth transitions. The story that I am currently working on is going to feature several flashbacks, and I knew it would feel clunky if every few chapters I kept on saying “seven years ago” and “back to the present day.”

If you go to the end of Part Two of The Salt Worms and the start of Part Three, you’ll see that I made an effort to create just such a seamless transition. First, I stopped the dialogue that was going on between Nathan and the leaders of New Denver. Time froze as we went into his inner thoughts about this conversation, and I mentioned that the account of the past he was giving was different from the actual events.

Then dialogue returned, but it was something that Major Hawlings had said. That had said is meant to be a very subtle indicator to the audience that we have now traveled back to the time that Nathan was just thinking of, much like the transition from Thatcher’s memoirs in Citizen Kane.

Then, at the end of Part Three, I come out of the flashback by reversing the sequence that brought us into it, just as with Egon’s memory in Ratatouille. First I let go of the dialogue, shifting seamlessly into exposition. I mention the fact that the worms now lay their eggs on the surface, which was the very last thing that was said before I went into the transition in the first place. Then dialogue resumes in the present day with Nathan continued his account to the council.

All in all I’m pretty pleased with the effect, but I’m going to have several more of these flashbacks, and hope that I’ll be able to keep all of them seamless, yet clear. I guess we’ll see!

Stories Within Stories

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A Tale of Two Tales)

I have previously mentioned the idea of a story being bookended by another. This would be like the Grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson in the Princess Bride, or Roger Kint telling his story to police detective Dave Kujan in The Usual Suspects. The bulk of the story is through the inner narrative, but there are a few moments where we see it connect to the outer one.

Arguably there is just one story, though, the larger inner one, and the other stuff is an enhancement of it. But what if there truly were two stories that stood side-by-side in the same narrative?

This is a common phenomenon in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Many times a case opens with a client coming to Holmes and recounting the events that led them to his doorstep. And these aren’t just quick summations, they are elaborated from a first-person perspective, telling an entire tale on their own. Then, only after this first story is completed does the second story pick up, that of Sherlock Holmes solving the case.

An excellent example of this is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In this mystery Victor Hatherly comes to Holmes’ abode with a chilling tale and a bandaged hand. He recounts how he was hired for an engineering task at an old mansion, but was blindfolded so that he did not know where it was. While doing his work he discovered that the mansion was being used for some sort of criminal operation. The owner’s of the mansion got wise to his epiphany, though, and tried to kill him, resulting in a chase where Victor escaped but his thumb was chopped off along the way!

The story now returns to the present moment, where Holmes deciphers the true intentions of the criminals, figures out the location of the mansion, and leads the police in a raid on the facility, only to discover that the place was already destroyed by a fire that Victor Hatherly inadvertently caused while he was there.

There is a strange feeling when Holmes and the others go the mansion, because it the first time that he has been there, but it feels like it is both the first and the second time for us, the audience. Were we there with Hatherly during his eventful evening, or were we sitting in Holmes’ study only hearing about it secondhand?

Well…both. It is a very strange and interesting sensation, being able to exist in two different scenes at the same time, and it is a quality I enjoy a great deal from this mystery.

Split Perspective)

There is another famous detective who also has his stories split in two. The TV series Columbo was unique in that it always let the audience know beforehand who the murderer was, and exactly how they carried out their crime. The first half hour of each episode was always dedicated to following the murderer as the main character, showing the meticulous details of their crime and how they tried to cover up any clues that tied them to it.

Take, for example, the episode Fade in to Murder, which is incredibly meta by making the murderer an actor who plays a television detective. Ward Fowler is a star of the silver screen, but his entire career has been overshadowed by the blackmailing of his show’s producer. Finally he decides that he has had enough, and he stages an elaborate scheme to rid himself of her for good. First he sets up an alibi by inviting a friend over to watch a ball game, then drugs the man while he goes out to commit the crime. Fowler then stages a robbery at the deli where his producer, Claire Daley, is ordering her meal. After knocking the deli owner unconscious he shoots Claire, assuming that the police will see this as a simple case of a robbery gone too far. Finally Fowler returns to his home, rewinds the VCR on which he has been recording the ball game, setting it back to the moment where his friend went unconscious and rouses him, making the man think he had only been passed out for a few minutes.

And that ends the first story, and now begins a new one as Lieutenant Columbo arrives to investigate the case. Bit-by-bit the detective finds things that don’t add up in the case. For example the bullet hole in Claire Daley’s jacket is above the entry wound in her back, suggesting that she still had her arms raised when the robber shot her, suggesting that she wasn’t running away or making a scene, suggesting that the killing was deliberate.

As Columbo zeroes in on Ward Fowler we feel another strange split of perspective, just as we did with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the time we spent with Ward Fowler as our main character we feel sympathetic to him. Part of us wants to see his ingenious strategy come off. But at the same time Columbo is our main character now, and we are charmed by his ingenuity, too. Are we supposed to view this as Columbo’s triumph or Fowler’s tragedy? Well…both.

My Own Story)

In my latest chapter of The Salt Worms I had the main character start to recount his journey from the eastern United States to the west. When I first wrote this it was a very brief summation, something that I rushed through to get back to the main event. And it worked, and I think that version of the story could have been maintained, but as I thought about this idea of a story split in two, I realized that I had an opportunity to slow things down and show the protagonist’s journey as a story of its own.

So then I revised and expanded it, and will continue doing so as the overall narrative proceeds. One thing that I am going to be careful about that, though, is to make sure both stories matter to one another. Only together will they provide the two halves that I want for The Salt Worms. Two halves that come together and tell of a grim resolution to correct a terrible situation, but all of it tinged with an uncertainty of success at the end.

Revising the Storm- Week 19

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I’ve reached the second act of this revision to The Storm. So far things have been a lot smoother than the first time I read through it, and honestly that’s been very encouraging to me. It’s important to me as a writer to feel that my work is getting closer to being finished with each pass, not just being changed for change’s sake.

Anyway, here’s a link to the previous revision of my story if you want to compare it to my work today, now I’ll get along with it.

Heading Back)

It was very difficult to hold the boat steady in the rolling waves, but the true challenge would only begin after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. They would have to maintain constant tension, since the more often the rope slacked and snapped taut the more likely it would break. They would have to gauge their speeds so that Harry’s boat didn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. They would have to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was still down in the valley of another and vice versa. They would have to keep the line straight between them and not at an angle, or else they might roll each other into the drink.

This first paragraph was hard for me. In the end I’ve only made slight changes to it, but I went back and forth on each one of them. There may yet be more work to do on it.

In short, there were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong, and any of them could easily end in destruction. For any other fisherman in their hamlet Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.

Why did it have to be Harry, Oscar wondered. Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice came from the radio.

“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and give whatever you’ve got to keep us aligned. I’ll do the pulling and warn you for every turn.”

“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”

“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar pushed the throttle control forward and the engine hummed loudly. Slowly his trawler edged forward.

As Oscar came close to the end of the rope’s length he eased back a little so that he would hit tension as gently as possible. Even so, there was a powerful jolt when the last feet of slack pulled out of the line. Oscar’s vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously, but nothing broke, and at last the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.

“Alright,” Oscar said into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little to starboard here. You just follow the turn.”

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

If you know so much then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.

Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide right turn to starboard, go until they were past the cape, then turn the rest of the way around until they were pointed back at the docks.

Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat would be at a slant to the waves, and they were much larger than before. Each one of them thundered against his hull and drenched his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked west to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black. It was as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle.

I took out the line “alone in their own, thick darkness,” at the end of that last paragraph. It felt like a moment of me telling the audience how to feel about the situation, rather than trusting them to get that already from the visual of ink in a bottle.

Suddenly Oscar heard a reverberating whine from behind and he turned to see Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling Oscar’s vessel at an angle.

“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.

“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!”

Oscar gave a cry of frustration, but spun his wheel towards port. They would just have to try a shallower angle, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could still handle. Oscar took the angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, but the rope was still moving the wrong way, now scraping across the corner of his deck.

He reduced down to twenty-five degrees, but still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, but it continually wavered back and forth.

Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.

“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief.

Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get around the cape, meaning they’d be spending that much longer in the heart of the storm.

But he didn’t have time to dwell on that misfortune. The storm’s darkness had become complete, so that each wave was hidden behind the streaking, black rain until it was already upon them. Oscar had to strain all of his senses to guide them through every change with only a moment’s notice. He led them forward as the waves rose like sheer mountains, tipping their boats skyward and then breaking across their bows in a fury. Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles and locked his knees in place.

I greatly reduced the above descriptions, calming things down a bit from its original melodrama. And on that note, I’m going to call it here for today and pick things back up a week from now.

Inspiration and Perspiration

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A Strange Place)

On Monday I started my latest short story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is an outpost of survivors, perched at the edge of a horrifying monster’s domain, and a mysterious stranger who comes to them with an a secret power.

But while the story is extremely fictional, the location of it is not. I very clearly state that this outpost is positioned is at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a famous real-world location in Tooele County, Utah.

These Salt Flats are the residue from the Bonneville Lake, a massive body of water that once covered the entire North-Western portion of Utah during the Pleistocene era. So massive was this lake that we can still see its old shoreline etched into the mountains today, and 150 million tons of salt still rests in its old basin.

That salt covers a spread of nearly 40,000 acres, creating a plain of dry, white powder that extends as far as the eye can see. When it rains a thin pool collects on the surface, creating a perfect mirror of the sky above, and when it is dry you can feel the air sucking the moisture out of your body.

In short, it is a strange and ethereal place. It feels totally alien, like it doesn’t actually belong in this world. And in my experience, that makes it the perfect place to help one’s imagination come alive.

The Two-Part Process)

Creativity comes down to making meaningful connections. Whether it be an original combination of notes in a song, or colors in a painting, or words in a novel, or jokes in a comedy act, the thing that makes creativity creative is how it puts things together in a way that the audience has not experienced before.

But making meaningful connections can be difficult. For being able to do so requires a most fickle connection of its own: unconscious fantasy and deliberate thought. The unconscious fantasy comes first, where novel thoughts and ideas pop up, seemingly at random. We have little to no control over this process, it just has to grace us when it sees fit. This is the “connections” part of the puzzle. Then comes the deliberate thought, because it is rare that these new ideas come through fully formed. They have to be filtered, distilled, and completed, and that comes about by simple, hard work. This provides the “meaningful” aspect. Spontaneous inspiration plus methodical development equals meaningful connections.

The “deliberate thought” phase is the hard piece of the puzzle in that it requires a mind that is disciplined and trained. It requires the ability to analyze and iterate. It requires energy, so being well-rested and in full command of one’s faculties are essential. It requires time without interruption. But while this may be the hard piece of the puzzle in terms of work, it is the easy part in that we can control it. It is work, but it is work that we can do on purpose.

Contrast this to the “uncontrollable inspiration” side of things. When we are in the zone it is effortless and fun, new ideas popping up one after another and delighting us. But when we are not “in the zone?” Well, that is what we call “Writer’s Block,” which isn’t a blockage of effort, but a blockage of new ideas.

In short, creativity requires a mind that is healthy in two different respects. It must be both strong and flexible. In weight training one learns that it is important to build both muscle strength and muscle relaxation. Healthy muscles don’t just flex well, they release well. And so it is with the creative mind. By being able to relax we freely make new connections, but by being able to flex we distill those into plot and structure.

Exercising and Stretching)

Muscle strength and flexibility are improved through different practices. Stretches help to keep the muscles limber while weight-lifting helps them to grow tense. So, too, there are different practices for strengthening and relaxing the mind.

Keeping the mind sharp is as simple as using it intentionally. This can be done through creative exercises, such as writing stories and poetry, but also through non-creative means. Mastering new subjects, learning analytical sciences, and solving puzzles may not seem like they directly contribute to your writing prowess, but they teach your mind how to work hard, and that absolutely helps with the creative process.

And while inspiration may be less within our power to control, there are still ways to relax our mind so that it reaches a state that invites new ideas. The free-association pattern of dreams has been a rich well of inspiration since the dawn of man, and keeping a regular dream journal can help one to retain the memory of those moments past waking. Meditation can also bring us to a more free-flowing state that is ripe with fresh ideas.

Of course there are those that have used mind-altering drugs to enter a creative trance, but this has the negative effect of degrading the mind’s health over time. It is a short-term gain for long-term losses.

There is one other excellent technique I know of to seek out inspiration, which is to experience something new. New experiences have to be processed by the mind, and processing gives rise to all manner of “what-ifs” and “imagine-thats.” As I mentioned at the start of this post, my current story is based at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and it is because my childhood visit to that place fired so many questions in my mind of what might be lurking beneath this flat, dry ocean of salt.

When I was nineteen I went to the Caribbean for two years, which was also a mind-opening journey. So was my first week at University. So was the first time I learned how to write computer programs. So was falling in love. So was holding my newborn son. Each of these days was a new experience and accordingly a new story idea.

There are some great, creative scenes in there, and now they just need some mental power to turn them into the moments of an actual story.

The Love of Magic

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Obsessed With the Unreal)

Why are stories so full of magic and surrealism? Why do fantasy and sci-fi novels dominate the industry?

Even stories based in the real world push towards the fringes of fantasy. The underdog succeeds more completely than we ever will, the boy and the girl are unbelievably compatible with each other, and the bully is an unbelievable caricature of pure evil. Shakespeare often wrote of real-life events and characters, but it is a sort of historical fiction, where the stories are still steeped in the fantastic. Characters are pushed and pulled by unseen humors, motives are based on the call of destiny, and outcomes are ruled by fate.

Even our most true-to-life stories and documentaries are chosen from subjects that are so extreme that they sound like an alien world to the rest of us. Tiger King was such a popular documentary series on Netflix because it dealt with such flamboyant and dangerous events that most of us will never experience anything like it in our ordinary lives.

So once again, why is this? Why do we almost exclusively select stories that are so heavily steeped in fantasy?

I reject the answer that it is because stories are just an escapism, a vehicle for getting away from our ordinary, mundane lives. Yes, these fantastic stories can be great entertainment, but there is more to it than that. A story steeped in fantasy doesn’t just feel entertaining, it somehow feels more right. There is something truer and more real about a story because of its unrealism.

The Truer Fantasy)

In my latest short story, Secrets in the Mountain, I introduced a character who lives an absolutely realistic, mundane life. He drives to the office in his ordinary car, works in his ordinary cubicle, and attends an ordinary meeting.

The monotony of his life is so stifling and mind-numbing that it begs for something fantastic to explode onto the scene! Which is exactly what happens. In my last post I had him look to the mountain as it grew inexplicably brighter and brighter, finally bursting outwards while a beam of light shot from its depths and destroyed the entire city before him!

And while these events could not literally be true, the emotions they conveyed felt correct and fitting for the narrative. They resounded with real inner feelings, if not our real outer experiences.

And this, I believe is the secret to why we love fantasy: because of how well it captures the stirrings of what is inside of us. Fantasy resonates because we are not only a physical body, but also an emotional soul. And that soul is not at all constrained by what “really” happened in the physical world, nor is it satisfied by only a portrayal of those outer events. For events are not fully understood just by being seen, they also need to be felt.

Like that time I was a young boy and wanted to pet my neighbor’s big dog. I was afraid to when the thing was awake, but one moment I found it asleep and thought it was a perfect opportunity to touch its back. Very slowly and cautiously I scooted nearer, then extended a trembling hand to its fur. No sooner did I touch it than the dog suddenly startled awake and snapped its head back to lock eyes with me! I jumped six feet into the air!

Well, I mean, I didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration. I just needed to let you understand how it felt when that dog suddenly bolted awake and electricity started to surge through me!

Well, I mean, it didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration, too. But it leaves something wanting if I say that the dog snapped around to look at me and I just felt “very, very startled.” I naturally revert into more fantastic expressions, not to lie about the experience, but to be more true to how it actually felt.

Making the Metaphor Solid)

Another reason for delving into the fantastic is to embody the things that have no body, but are still very real. Sometimes we feel pushed and pulled by forces in our lives, but these forces have no names or faces, so in our stories we invent ones for them.

Consider the sensation of a woman who doesn’t feel like a traditional housewife, but feels pressured by society to conform to a preconceived model. They might say that they feel like the world is trying to smother them and replace them with a perfect robot instead.

And so that’s exactly what the story of The Stepford Wives does. It takes that “feels like” statement and turns it into a literal manifestation, allowing the audience to grapple with these intangible ideas in a way that feels visceral and real.

This same approach is visible in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is steeped in an incredibly fantastical world. Superheroes and fairy tale creatures are realities in this story, and it is easy to think that the dramatic events have no bearing on reality. But actually there is a very powerful connection between this fiction and our everyday lives.

The main antagonist of the film is Prince Nuada, an elf whose father made a truce with mortal men eons ago, agreeing that humanity would keep itself to the cities and the magical creatures would keep to the forests. Of course that is a pledge that has long-since been forgotten. Humanity has continued to sprawl in an uncontrolled fashion, taking over both ancient culture and natural beauty, leading Prince Nuada to declare war on our species.

And obviously this is a commentary on Western society’s expansionism, which takes over real-life cultures and causes real-life extinctions in nature. And while the film is exciting and imaginative, it also brings the audience to appreciate the real-life fact that when one slice of humanity flourishes, it usually comes at a cost to other cultures and nature.

Our Need For Magic)

Putting magic into stories isn’t just for “fun” or “escape.” It is essential to capturing the deeper emotions of our heart, as well as the large, external forces that move us. Reality, it would seem, is much more than meets the eye, and story is the medium by which we make all of its invisible layers apparent.

Write What You Know . . . Then Surpass It

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Places I Know)

Last Wednesday I posted the first half of my new story, Secrets in the Mountain, and it was a very easy piece for me to write. In it we had a man arriving at an office building, going up to his third floor cubicle, and pacing the halls with his headset during a meeting.

And all of this was biographical. During my previous job I worked in the exact building I described, with the same cubicle layout that I mentioned, and having the same sorts of conversation as the main character was having.

Not only this, but during that job I had the same lethargy that he had, the same longing for a life more meaningful. I have had mornings like him where the lights were off, hardly anyone had come into the office, and I had this inexplicable feeling that work didn’t matter because something important (I didn’t know what) was about to happen. In short, I have been that exact character in that exact place with those exact feelings.

Now at the end of the piece I started to build towards something more fantastic. The character’s premonition of important events coming starts to come true as a strange heat signature comes from the middle of a nearby mountain. In the next section the main character is going to walk to the glass wall of the building and watch as the heart of the mountain suddenly bursts apart!

And that will happen because that is exactly the fantasy I had one of those real-life days in that real-life office. I was longing for something mythic in my life, and as I stood at a glass wall staring at the nearby mountains, my brain imagined the whole thing exploding from a beam of light bursting through the rock.

That was a fun thought, and no sooner did I have it than I started to wonder, “well why would that happen? Is there some mythical being that was trapped in there? How would everyone in the building react? What would I do? What if I wasn’t afraid of it? What if I was somehow connected to it without even knowing it?”

And from that I started to piece together a story idea that I’d love to write out one day. A story that went from the mundane to the fantastic in a single, explosive moment, just as I now had a moment of pure creativity that randomly sprang from an ordinary day in my ordinary life.

Write What You Know)

Now I am far from the first author to take my real life, and from it concoct a story that blends authenticity with grandeur. Herman Melville is most famous for his epic novel Moby Dick, which follows a sailor on the Pequod, a whaling vessel whose captain is obsessed with catching and killing the eponymous whale.

Melville’s details of the whaling vessel are extremely precise. Take his description of the crow’s nest:

In shape, the Sleet’s crow’s-nest is something like a large tierce or pipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with a movable sidescreen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale. Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it through a little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or side next the stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet, pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences.

As you might have guessed, Melville comes by this stunning level of detail because he is writing from his personal observations. He served as a sailor on both a merchant and a whaling vessel, and experienced firsthand the very settings that he describes.

But Moby Dick tells a remarkable and shocking story, and the sea voyages that Melville personally took did not culminate in his ship being destroyed by a massive, white whale and every crewmember drowned. Yes, some ships of the day were destroyed by whales, such as when the Essex was sunk in 1821, an incident which directly inspired Melville’s novel, but even real-life events like these were not as dramatic and mythical as those in Moby Dick. Melville had taken a foundation of authenticity, but then grafted an epic fantasy onto it. And because he was so intimately familiar with the craft of whale-hunting, he knew the perfect places that the fantastic could be welded onto the realistic for a seamless transition.

Even a narrative that leans even further into fantasy can still have its roots in the author’s personal experiences. Stephen King witnessed the death of a friend while still a young child. The event was so traumatic that he has been unable to recall the actual event, but it is a likely source of inspiration for his famous horror stories. Another real-life source of inspiration for King was his fight to regain sobriety after years of an alcohol and drug addiction. This is a common theme throughout his works, such as in Doctor Sleep, where the main character Danny Torrance must fight through the same alcoholism that plagued Stephen King…as well as psychic vampires!

Imagination Bolted Onto Reality)

In short, even the most fantastic of stories can have roots in the author’s reality. When I stared out of my office windows on a boring day, thinking to myself “imagine if something fantastic happened right now,” then I knew the exact right moment for the mundane to make a left turn into the amazing.

In reality, everyday life doesn’t suddenly burst into huge explosions, albino whales, or psychic vampires, but the wonderful thing about stories is that the fantastic absolutely can invade the mundane. In fact it must!

A Sense of Foreboding

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What’s This Got to Do With Anything?)

The protagonist approaches the dark and strange mansion, seeking shelter after her car has broken down on a lonely stretch of the highway. In the darkness she doesn't spot a crow lurking in the rafters until the bird swoops right over her head, cawing loudly! She screams in surprise, but a moment later scoffs at herself for being so jumpy. She pushes the door inward and it creaks loudly on hinges that haven't been used for years. She has a moment of hesitation, but then presses forward, into the mansion's darkened hall.

When I was a teenager the local television network would show an old monster movie or horror film every Friday. And not high-production classics, either, but the low-budget, small cast, horribly written, obviously fake effects, filmed in one location sort of movies that 40s and 50s horror cinema was overflowing with.

And all the time these movies would start with a scene like the one I described above. Even before the actual antagonist was unveiled, some strange and startling event would happen, something that had absolutely nothing to do with all the rest of the story, but which made it abundantly clear that the protagonists were entering a place of evil.

And this sense of dread foreboding occurs even in quality pieces of storytelling, too. Consider the very first lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

...

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

What does it matter that this takes place at midnight, that it is a dreary night, or that it is in the middle of “bleak December?” Absolutely nothing. These details don’t directly tell us anything about the characters or plot. Everything that transpires could still have been done with all these factors left entirely unmentioned.

But no one would say that these little details are unimportant. Perhaps they have nothing to do with the broader narrative, but they have a great deal to do with setting the atmosphere and the reader’s expectations. They make us understand that we are to view all the following events in a grim and dreary light. Not only does this get us into the proper frame of mind, it also prevents us from misinterpreting later moments, such as this:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,”

When we first meet the titular raven our narrator greets him in a jovial manner, finding its small sternness comical. But we, the audience, do not make the same mistake. Because of the grim foreboding at the start of the story we know to be wary of this solemn specter. The character may mistake his guest, but we receive the story beats in the correct context.

Double Duty)

But is it possible for an introductory scene to not only set the mood, but also deliver narrative or setup plot? Let’s consider the very first scene in the 1993 film Jurassic Park. We open on trees rustling in the dead of night, and a group of heavily armed workers staring unblinking at whatever it is that’s approaching.

A moment later the trees give way to a forklift carrying a large crate, which is lowered to a paddock. All the workers move to open the gate and let whatever is inside of the box transfer into its new home. But, of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the dinosaur inside bolts against the gate, causing the crate to shift away, creating an opening through which it grabs one of the workers. Everyone panics and starts zapping at the creature with their stun batons, but the man who was grabbed is killed before the thing is subdued.

There is only one character in this entire scene that appears later in the film, and his dialogue does not depend on us having seen the event. The story really only starts in earnest after this mood-setting piece is complete.

But that isn’t to say that this piece has nothing to do with the narrative. In fact it does. We are soon told that the accident caused the park’s investors to become anxious about the risk involved with the project, and that they have demanded for a team of specialists review the facility before it opens. This, of course, leads to our main characters being brought in to see the park before it officially opens. Thus this first scene is setting the mood, but it is also laying the groundwork for all the narrative.

Making a Shift)

The use of foreboding imagery can also be used to alert the audience that there is going to be a shift in tone. Maybe everything seems calm and easy now, but don’t expect things to stay that way for long. The opening shot of Alien is a slow pan over the command modules of a futuristic spaceship. Everything is calm, everything is quiet, but suddenly there is a flash of light and screech of noise as an incoming transmission breaks the silence.

It’s a startling moment, which might seem entirely unnecessary. The entire first act is a lengthy sequence where the crew follows standard procedure to investigate a distress call, and they are all extremely nonchalant about the whole affair. But because of that introductory startle, the audience knows that things are not going to remain this relaxed for long. They are anticipating the shift into horror even before the menace of the movie arrives.

And I’ll be going for this sort of effect with the first half of my new story on Wednesday. The piece is going to begin in a very grounded, very mundane place. But I want to prepare the reader for the supernatural events that come in the second half, so I’m going to craft a startling moment for my protagonist. A bird will swoop close overhead with a loud screech, a foreteller of dramatic changes yet to come.