Lost and Found

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The Catharsis of Losing and Finding)

This last Thursday I suggested that loss is an integral component of most stories. It certainly has been central to each short piece that I’ve written for this current series. The reason for the prevalence of loss in storytelling is quite straightforward. With rare exception, a story is about a journey. The journey, in fact, is the story. And for there to be a journey, then necessarily there must be the character in one place and an objective that they are currently deprived of in another. For if the character and the objective were already in the same place, there would be no journey to obtain it, and consequently no story.

Note that the word “place” here may designate actual physical locations with a distance between the character and their goal. However it may also mean two different emotional states, or spiritual states, or moral states, or any other medium with a distance between two points. Hamlet isn’t removed by physical space from the better state of having avenged his father, but he is lacking in courage and confidence.

And so then comes the question of why is the main character so distant from their goal? To that there is usually one of two answers: either they have never possessed it, and so must obtain it for the first time, or else they had it once and now they have lost it, and so must work to regain it. Certainly there are examples in literature of the first, but I would argue it is the second approach that gets written more commonly. Why? Simply because of the stronger catharsis that exists in a tale of loss and regaining.

If a person in a story begins by possessing something, it generally means that they should have that something. For it to be taken from them then, even if by their own folly, means that things are not right any more. That sense of wrongness provides a natural tension and conflict, and the hope that things will be made right provides a natural hook to draw the reader through to a happy end.

There is also the psychological importance in this notion of loss and recovery. We all have had times when we lost something which meant a great deal to us. Specifically something of a spiritual nature, such as our innocence, our hope, or our beliefs. We feel incomplete to live without those elements, but also are intimidated by the odyssey it would take to reclaim them. And so we choose between living the story (the journey) of our life, or else living forever afterwards as a broken person.

Clearly writing loss into a story means dealing with some weighty themes, then, and it deserves great care. There are a few different ways to approach the subject, let’s take a brief look at a few of them.

 

Lost by the Hero’s Failure)

One of the most classic uses of loss in a story, is that of the hero possessing some great gift that they are unworthy of. Perhaps they were given it by another, or came by it through pure happenstance. Because they do not respect the significance of their gift they are careless, and by that carelessness they lose it. Often they lose it to the villain, who will use that gift for something evil.

Here the reader understands that they deserved to lose their gift because they were unworthy of it, but still believes that they should become worthy now, and then they should regain the gift. We tend to be very forgiving to the characters of a story, always willing to grant them a second chance.

The connection this type story of story has to the human experience is obvious. All the time we make mistakes, all the time we lose things as the consequences of those mistakes. And even after all that, we hope to have a second chance, an opportunity to do it better the next time.

You see this sort of story in the classic fairy tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Aladdin is a roguish scamp who comes across a jinni of immense power entirely by accident. Though he uses it to acquire the fame, fortune, and wife he desires, he has not done anything to actually earn any of these gifts.

A sorcerer manages to steal away that jinni, and does so because of a lapse of care on Aladdin and his wife’s part. Now the true journey begins. Without being able to rely on his previous source of strength, now Aladdin must make use of all his own determination and cunning to recapture that which had once been his and restore peace back to the land.

I also incorporated the hero’s foolish loss into my short story Phisherman. Here we actually meet our main character after the misplacing of his great gift, that of his own innocence. He is a man incomplete, perverting his great talents, and living far beneath his potential.

He isn’t doing anything to reclaim that which was lost, either. Instead he has tried to fill that hole in his soul with a carefully-constructed facade to hide behind. This story then illustrates that sometimes there is a second loss needed, a loss of pride and false persona. This second loss we do get to see, and it returns him to the place of his original wounding. Now again he has a chance to commit himself to the better journey of reclaiming his soul.

 

Lost by Circumstance)

Opposite to this first type of story is the one where the main character loses all, but due to no fault of their own. Usually in these stories the main character still only held their great gift by happenstance. They received these things easily, and now they have lost them easily.

When someone has obtained something without effort, we tend to feel they do not truly possess it. They have it, but they do not own it. Thus the journey of the hero to regain what was lost is really the journey of their earning it for the first time. This time what is regained will really be theirs. They understand the worth of the thing for having had to work for it, and they have the power now to ensure it will not be lost again.

This is obviously closely related to the first type of loss-story we examined, and its connection to our human experience is a sister-experience to the former. When something is taken from us by another it represents an injustice, a wounding that we did not deserve. But we only endure the loss because we do not possess the strength to prevent it. And so it is the obtaining of that strength that now becomes the journey. We have to put in the work to find our nerve, our determination, our confidence. Then, at last, we march forward to claim what was rightfully ours. This makes us not only the possessor once more, but now and forever the protector as well.

A wonderful example of a hero that loses everything at no fault of his own can be found in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. This story begins with a happy family brought to sudden ruin with the dual blow of financial ruin and the death of the father. The tranquil peace they had enjoyed is taken away, and it is up to Nicholas Nickleby to win it back. It’s a long and hard road, with many life lessons along the way. Finally, though, the family is restored to the happiness they once had, as well as expanded into something greater. And that felicity having being recaptured, it won’t be taken away again.

In The Sweet Bay Tree I made use of a character that begins as something of a parallel to Nicholas Nickleby. That character is a tree that begins its life in a happy field, surrounded by friends and family. Later it is transported away and forever loses all that it had had before.

Here the similarities diverge, though, because in my story there is no restitution for the tree. There were a few reasons for this, one of which was to give the story a cautionary message. In my story the tree refuses for the longest while to even accept that it has lost anything, and so does nothing to try and correct the matter. The fact is that nothing can be regained until we are first willing to accept that it has been lost. There are those who are far from home and ever will be simply because they refuse to admit it.

 

Lost Forever)

This leads to a third archetype for loss in stories, which is that of a loss that is has no regaining. These are our tragedies, the tales that caution us of permanent consequences. Perhaps in an afterlife there can always be hope for a restitution, but here on earth some doors shut forever.

These stories can actually go both ways in regards to whether the hero initially possessed that which was lost or not. In Annie Hall our main man Alvie never really possessed Annie, after all. If anything that’s his “problem” throughout the film. In a relationship you may use words and phrases like “I belong to you,” but in reality it is a tenuous contract that might slip from your fingers whether you want it to or not. And once it is gone, there is little chance of its being regained.

Then, of course, there is the hero who really does possess the gift as his own, and that makes his loss of it all the more tragic. In the Old Testament the Israelites demanded a king, and Saul was chosen to lead them. At the time of his anointing he was given wonderful promises, including one that his line would rule over Israel forever.

Over the years, however, Saul’s pride began to get in his own way, and it led him to claim more than he had a right to. As a result his promises were rescinded, he died violently in battle along with three of his sons, and the kingdom ultimately fell to another. There isn’t any more permanent of a loss than that, and one that tragically never had to be.

My story that incorporated themes of permanent loss was Three Variations on a Theme. Here we have three miniature tales, the first two of which fall under that template of a man losing all due to his own hubris. In each of these the main character would have been fine, they would have had everything that they set out to have, if only they had proceeded with their plan as intended. But they wavered, and they lost all.

The third of these allegories was more along the lines of losing that which you never possessed. Here a starving man trades his body for temporary satisfaction, but this particular story doesn’t suggest a reasonable alternative. It seems more or less that he was fated to fall, that some tragedies may be unavoidable.

 

Lost Forever…Something New to Follow)

But what about loss in Network Down? I know that of all the entries in this series this last story has been more focused on entertainment than on somber musings, but even a more punchy story can still have its moments of loss. That is the destiny I have in store for Kevyn, but that loss will follow a somewhat different pattern than any of the ones mentioned above.

In some tales the hero loses something, and loses it permanently, but through this loss they find that the way is left open for something new to to take its place. Perhaps that new something is better, perhaps it is worse. But it is something new, and most often it is something that redefines the character entirely.

On Thursday I’ll post the second half of Kevyn’s story, and in it he will permanently trade his current life for another. In his case it is a trade he would normally never consider, but as you have already seen he is in moments of great duress. Ideal or not, it will be a decision that he consciously wills for himself, preferring it to all other forms of loss he could otherwise endure. Come back on Thursday to see how that works for him.

 

It Follows

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This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”

How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”

Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.

But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.

 

Phisherman and Back to the Future)

When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.

So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.

That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!

 

The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)

In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.

Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.

This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.

 

Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)

Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.

Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.

You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.

Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!

 

World Building)

There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.

Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.

But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.

And potions? Yes.

Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.

Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.

What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!

Well what would those look like?

You get the picture.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.

It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.

Myths

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On Thursday I posted a short story about a Sweet Bay tree being confined within a college multi-purpose room. At its core, that story was meant as an allegory for how our lives can sharply change course in only a moment, while our expectations for that altered future then take a great deal longer to adjust. On the surface, I realize that that may seem like a very strange connection to draw, but for me the idea of this allegory arose quite naturally.

The idea for that story actually began more than a decade ago when I watched the television mini-series Roots for the first time. For those that don’t know, Roots was a six-chapter epic spanning multiple generations of African slaves in America, the real-life ancestors of the man who penned this story.

 

Roots and Trees)

The story begins with the first of our subjects being captured in his native homeland and then sailed across the ocean to America. There he is sold into slavery and his daughter, grand-son, and all of the further two generations spend their lives in servitude until the Civil War is concluded and they are set free. There the story closes.

While each generation has their own trials and arcs, I was always most captivated by the plight of that first forefather, Kunta Kinte. Of all of these people, he alone begins his life wild and free, with absolutely no expectation of ever being bent to another man’s whims. Understandably, he resists the harsh changes that are thrust upon him, and refuses to accept that they define his new reality. As such he performs one escape attempt after another, but sadly each ends in failure and he never does obtain his freedom.

I remember watching his ambitions to return to his native Africa with a mixture of both understanding and sad cynicism. Obviously I could appreciate his desire to return back to where he belonged, but at the same time I wondered how he didn’t realize it was hopeless. Suppose he had managed to break free and evade capture. How then was he expecting to find to cross an entire ocean and find his old tribe in the middle of a massive continent?! At the very best he might win a better life than his current slaver, but he would never be able to recapture the exact life he had had before.

To be clear, I did not think he was stupid for trying to escape, more so I was perplexed by the recognition of a human stubbornness. A stubbornness that defies reason, and one that is common within all people, myself included.  I vaguely understood that this stubbornness had something to do with not allowing ourselves to accept that which our hearts have deemed to be unacceptable.

Or at least, I almost knew that. At the time all I experienced was a strange sensation, a sort of empathetic emotional reaction, but I didn’t understand what it was about or why it was there. Something inside of me had been stirred, but I wasn’t able to put words to it until a few years later when I was seated in a large multipurpose room at college, looking at the massive trees that had lined the walls in massive planter boxes.

Suddenly I found myself wondering how on earth they had come to even be in this room, given that they wouldn’t even begin to fit through the doors. The simplest explanation, I decided, was that they had been brought in while still young and small, and had afterwards grown to their massive statures. Then I realized that if that was the case, then now they would only be able to leave this room when chopped into small pieces.

Though these were only trees that I was contemplating, I found this notion very sad. It was right then that some strange connection happened inside of me. Some voice said “hey, that’s kind of like Kunta Kinte, isn’t it? Able to come in, but not to go out. That’s kind of like all the slaves, and all other people who can never have what they want from life.”

 

The Abstract)

I was so wrapped in an individual’s experience that I hadn’t been able to see the bigger picture. I had not understood why I felt a connection to someone whose experience was completely different from my own. I had to realize that there was a broader theme at play here. Up until that moment of epiphany I had been viewing this as a single character’s problem, rather than as a universal suffering which happened to be reflected in that single individual.

Being able to take a specific instance and find in it the universal comes more easily to some than to others. I don’t think I used to be very good at it at all, but of all things it was an education in software development that taught me how to step back from the minutia to take in the whole.

Of course what we are talking about here is abstraction, the act of focusing on an entire body of material rather than on the individual components. The ability to deal with an interface, rather than an implementation.

Most often in stories we get connected to a character, or a moment. We talk about the hero or the showdown. We evaluate these elements as a single entity, deciding if we enjoyed them entirely within their own context.

But sometimes an author doesn’t want the reader to be obsessed with a character or an event, they want them to be thinking about an idea, or a type, or a theme. The author wants them to ask “What are the key attributes of this sort of man?” or “what would I do in a situation like that?” or “do the ends always justify the means?”

 

Myths)

And that my friends, is how we come to myths. It is where we change from the specific to the abstract.

Long ago authors figured out that the way to get people to focus on the idea of a story instead of the details, was to put walls up between the readers and the actual events described. I’ve made mention of this before, but when all the ordinary things in a story have been made strange and unfamiliar, then the intangible themes that usually hang in the background now come into center focus.

We don’t relate on a personal level to tortoises, nor to hares, and so in Aesop’s classic fable we have no distraction to keep us from recognizing the truth at the core of this myth: that flighty passion will burn out, while stoic consistency will eventually win the day. Even if we were entirely unaware of Plato and his work we would immediately assume that The Cave was a work of allegory. The premise of this story is that of men that spend their whole lives in an underground cave believing that their lives are made up of nothing more than a series of shadows being projected upon a wall. It is just too foreign and bizarre to take at face value, and so we naturally start looking for a deeper meaning in it.

In my next blog post I am going to present a collection of three short myths, each being an examination on the same theme. My intention will be to illustrate how an author can indicate to the reader that the story at hand is meant to be understood abstractly, and to show that there are multiple ways to approach the same lesson. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

How to Finish

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It has been said that every story begins in media res. This means that there is always something that has occurred before the action picks up and there is always a context that the story is couched within. The same goes for endings as well. Unless your story ends with a complete apocalypse, then it is going to continue on even after your last page runs out. Thus it isn’t the world that ends, just this particular story about it.

That was certainly the case with my last story, its conclusion came firmly in the middle of a larger ongoing journey. Had I continued it to the next stopping point, there only would have been another continuation after that as well. And so on and so on without end.

So when exactly is a story “complete” and when is the right time to make your current page the last page? This is a discussion I’ve had with my wife on a number of occasions and we tend to have different opinions on the matter. We enjoy seeing movies together at the theater whenever we can, and usually when we walk out at least one of us will be dissatisfied by the ending.

She feels that Gravity ended too abruptly, that we ought to see how the heroine will be rescued from the beach she has landed on. I feel that we’ve already seen her triumph, and we can just infer that everything else is going to be okay now.

I feel that the final act of The Return of the King is bloated and long overstays its welcome. She says that it isn’t just the end of one film, it’s the end of the entire trilogy all-at-once, and so a long good-bye is fully warranted.

And the fact is, she isn’t wrong and neither am I. Each of these endings are simply different styles that match our different tastes. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my personal preference in this matter represents an objective truth.

In fact, when it comes to writing a story, an author will usually find that they must choose from a number of possible valid endings to their plot. Maybe in some cases there really is just one best way to close a tale, but usually you will have at least these three equally viable exit-points available to your plot.

 

Implied Trajectory)

This is the story that ends while still on the battlefield. The villain has just been defeated and the warriors are breathing a sigh of relief, silently greeting the new dawn rising over the mountains.

One of my favorite examples of this is the film Warrior. The film focuses on two central characters, brothers who have each become estranged from one another and from their abusive father who inadvertently drove them apart. The two live entirely unaware of one another’s situation, with more than a decade having passed since they parted.

But then, of course, fate intervenes. Each of them is brought by their own needs to the same MMA competition, where each can only obtain their victory through crushing the hopes of the other. We all know the two are going to face down sooner or later in the ring, and when the promised conflict finally comes they quickly break each other down to tears. All of the anger and bitterness comes out blow-by-blow. Each of them has grown callouses and scars over their emotional wounds, and all of that baggage has to be worn down before they can get to the heart of that hurt.

And then, as all their walls are broken down, the two realize that they are still brothers at their core. The horn signals the end of the fight and the two leave the mat, cradling one another in their arms. Cut to credits.

But what about the estranged father? What about the destitute family the younger brother was trying to support? What about the foreclosure on the older brother’s home? None of this gets explored, because frankly it doesn’t need to. If this were real life then any number of trajectories might follow our characters after their fight. But this isn’t real life, it’s a story. And part of the language of story is that the trajectory it finishes with is the trajectory that the character’s will continue with. Just think of the most classic ending of them all: “and they lived happily ever after.”

After the two brothers reconcile at the end of Warrior we are meant to understand that everything is going to be okay now. The family will heal, the debts will be paid, the loved ones will be cared for. We’ve already resolved the great conflict, so all the littler ones will surely follow.

 

Reaping the Reward)

Of course we can go the other route with a story, giving the ending plenty of space to breathe. The victory has been hard-won, but now we want to see the heroes receiving the fruits of those efforts.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post the excellent example of this in King Henry V. This epic spans two full countries and years of duration. We travel through lofty courts and muddy battle-fields. There is love, there is fighting, there is humor, and there is betrayal. With so much ground to cover it might have been easy to rush the plot, but the play insists on taking its time and giving the story due justice. Thus it is we spend the entire first two acts before King Henry even reaches the decision to fight his war.

Henry is, of course, the King of England, but by his ancestry he also feels he rightfully has claim to the throne of France. He seeks to unite the two mighty nations, but his ambitions are unsurprisingly rebuffed.

The more peaceful campaigns having been exhausted, we then find Henry with his soldiers invading French soil in Act III. This act and the next detail the warfare, complete with several dramatic shifts in power before Henry finally stands in triumph on St Crispin’s Day.

At this point the story really could have drawn to a close, implying that this trajectory of triumph will continue past the final curtain. But as the play has taken its time in showing the lead-up to the war and the details of that war, it only seems right that it now  illustrate the outcome of that war as well. And so we get an entire act dedicated to Henry’s romancing of Katharine, his ascension to the French throne, and the peaceful prosperity of the two united kingdoms.

An epic tale deserves an epic ending, and sometimes its nice to just bask in the world of a story for a little bit longer before saying good-bye.

 

A New Beginning)

All stories find their close right at the end of one arc, but some are also positioned right at the beginning of another. As suggested above, this was the idea behind the ending of my latest story. There we had an arc of how an individual ruins himself by his voyeurism and criminality. The final moments of the piece involve the law finally catching up and taking him into custody. This marks the end of a life for him, but also marks the beginning of another.

One of the best examples I know of this sort of story is that of The Railway Children. This charming piece by Edith Nesbit begins, as so many other stories, with something going terribly wrong. Specifically, it opens with the father of a 19th-century London family being arrested on false charges. His once-wealthy wife and children must learn to live without him, eventually having to sell their house and move away to the country where a great number of adventures await them.

The children: Roberta, Phyllis, and Peter, win over a great many friends with their bright and enthusiastic nature. Though they are destitute themselves, they still find all manner of ways to help out those that are even less fortunate than they. By these connections they eventually come across a man that is aware of their father’s plight and has several strings he can pull in that regard.

Ultimately the father is exonerated, and the final scene features him coming to his family’s little cottage and entering back into their lives. The final lines include the following:

He goes in and the door is shut. I think we will not open the door or follow him. I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.

As he crosses that threshold the story that this book has been about is ending, but now another story is beginning. It isn’t the place of this book to try and tell that story as well, it is a very personal and intimate family story after all.

 

These make up the most common types of endings, but of course there are all manner of other options as well. There are the endings that really aren’t endings at all. The words stop but the arcs don’t, and the world just keeps on turning. This could be a literal cliff-hanger as in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It could also be a single slice out of an ongoing serial, such as Little House in the Big Woods.

There are of course the endings that are true endings, most notably any of the many biographies that follow their subject to the moment of death, at which point there really isn’t anything more to say.

Then there are those things called epilogues. Some of which are really the ending of the story and ought to have had a proper chapter heading. Other epilogues, though, are used to bridge that gap between the Implied Trajectory ending and the Reaping the Reward ending. The story proper will end with the main arc completed and the “happily ever after” implied, but then the epilogue will give a quick synopsis of what exactly happens to each of the characters in that “happily ever after.”

There are many types of endings, and if there’s anything specific I’ve wanted to say with this post it is to simply choose the one that best fits your story. The examples of the stories I shared above were specifically chosen because they could have each been finished in different ways, but each of them should have been finished in the way that they were. Warrior should have concluded at the moment of emotional climax, King Henry V should have had a grand, sweeping close, and The Railway Children should have carried us just far enough to see the sweetness of a new beginning.

The fact is many stories want to be finished in a particular way, and it is the obligation of the author to find out what that way is. With my next story post I’d like to experiment with a more unusual sort of ending. That tale is going to begin with its own ending, though it will take the entire following story for the main character to realize that its path is already over. Come back on Thursday if you’re curious to see how that turns out.

Would I Lie to You?

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On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!

Second Introductions

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This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.

And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.

As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.

It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.

I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.

Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.

 

A Christmas Carol)

In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.

No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.

But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.

The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.

 

Citizen Kane)

Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.

We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.

Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.

We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.

 

Empathy)

In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.

I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world  to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.

When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.

Come back on Thursday to see how I iterate with that in the second entry of Phisherman.

Something Different

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Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.

I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.

Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.

 

Unhealthy Change)

I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.

Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.

Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.

 

Priorities)

But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?

Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.

I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.

First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.

One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.

If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.

 

Natural Improvement)

No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.

When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.

Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.

 

A Real-Life Example)

Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.

When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.

Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.

The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.

 

By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.

Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.