How Many Characters?

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Very Limited Scopes)

I’ve always been interested in movies with a limited cast of characters. Take, for example, the 2013 film Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The entire film takes place in a man’s car as he makes a long drive. Along the way he has a number of intense phone conversations, all dealing with a life-changing situation that has just come up. Obviously there are other characters involved at the opposite end of those calls, but it is very much a one-man show.

Then there’s Gravity, also from 2013, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts carrying out a mission in space. A sweeping cloud of debris takes out their entire crew, leaving them as the lone survivors, desperately looking for a way back into the atmosphere before the cloud of debris circles the earth and comes for another pass. George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it further then the first act, and so we are left with one singular character again.

Another example would be All is Lost, which, wouldn’t you know it, was also from the year 2013! In this film Robert Redford’s character is alone at sea when his yacht floods, leaving him stranded in the middle of the ocean on an inflatable raft. Not only is the entire film limited to the perspective of this singular character struggling to survive, he also happens to be a particularly silent character. There are almost no words spoken at all throughout the movie.

You might wonder how any film could work with such a limited set of characters. But for how limited they might seem, each of these movies provides a compelling narrative, significant character development, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas. This claim might seem less preposterous when you realize that while most films do have more than just one or two main characters, they usually max out at three or four.

Fewer Faces Than You Realize)

Just last week I finished watching Casablanca, one of the most beloved films of all time. Much of the film takes place in a bustling club, with dozens of characters filing in and out, ordering drinks, gambling at the roulette wheel, and selling contraband. But what stood out to me most as I watched this movie was how almost all of these characters are little more than set dressing, used to establish the mood of the film, but having no meaningful contribution to the central arc.

At the heart of this film there are really only three characters: Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Captain Renault. These are the only characters who ever show any development, the only ones with shifting feelings and objectives, and the only ones who change each other over time.

At the beginning of the film Rick is a disillusioned cynic, trying to hide from the life of passion he once led before his heart was crushed by Ilsa Lund. Captain Renault is somewhat similar to Rick, though he hides his true self behind a mask of careless joviality. Then Ilsa arrives on the scene, arm-in-arm with another man, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to confront his old wounds and he and Ilsa exchange a few heated barbs.

But those insults only prove that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Rick finds himself slowly thawed by the shadow of the love he once held, first into bitter anger, but then into something more pure. By a series of events finds himself in possession of all that he needs to remove Victor Laszlo, clearing the way for him and Ilsa to run away together.

But now that he has awoken to love he has also awoken to his old sense of honor and dignity. And so he sacrifices himself to save Ilsa and Victor, arranging for them to leave the city together. He says goodbye to the woman he cares for, though this time on his own terms, and this honest departure allows the love to remain between them.

But then comes the complication with Captain Renault. For saving Ilsa and Victor required Rick to cross his old friend. He doesn’t want to kill Renault, but he must use him against his will for a moment, after which he promises to turn himself over to Renault’s superios and face all of the consequences that come. But when the moment comes for Captain Renault to exact his revenge he doesn’t. Like Rick, he sees the opportunity to finally redeem himself and he takes it. As they walk off Rick announces that he believes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And that’s it. Three characters and no more. I would even say it is really only two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, with Captain Renault only being a supporting player until the very final act.

Aren’t You Forgetting Something?)

But you might ask what about Victor Laszlo? Or Major Strasser, the villain who weaves the very trap around Laszlo and Ilsa which Rick must deliver them from? I maintain that these are supporting characters only. They are entirely single-dimensional. Each is a single, unyielding force in opposite directions that the main characters then pivot and weave around. They are present only to make the actual drama possible, they do not actually play in the game themselves.

And everyone else you see in the movie? Set dressing. They are there to set the tone, to provide flavor and humor, and even just to distract you from the fact this story is really only about a very few people.

And that’s alright. Because as it turns out, writing a story for central characters becomes exponentially more difficult for each one that is added to the plot. When too many faces are forced into the center some of them are usually left half-baked or else everything is too muddled to make any sense of. It is always better to write a story of a few characters well and dress it up nicely, than to overcomplicate a story to its own demise.

And that is going to be one of my guiding principles in my new story: Covalent. Last Wednesday I introduced a single character, and in his thoughts I made mention to two others. And that’s it. That is going to be the entire central cast for the entire rest of the story. Yes, there will be other creatures and entities that lurk about, but all the central plot is going to be focused on the interplay of these three key players. Come back on Wednesday to see what I mean.

Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little, Just Right

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Just Right)

The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is all about finding the happy medium. From porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right to beds that are too hard, too soft, and just right, Goldilocks is on a mission to find the happy medium.

Which is ironic, because while she may not be too reclusive of a neighbor she certainly is too invasive! Throughout the story she fails to find that “just right” middle ground of being sociable but still respecting privacy.

Writing a story is often a balancing act between too much and too little as well. To have a well-rounded story one must ever be looking for that “just right” between two extremes.

Too Little)

The first story I ever wrote was for a school assignment. I was supposed to come up with my own idea of what happened to Henry Hudson after his crew mutinied against him.

In case you’re not familiar, Henry Hudson was an English explorer born around 1565. He, like so many other explorers of the time, was obsessed with the idea of discovering a naval route to connect the western world to the eastern. Like Columbus, Hudson took multiple expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, searching for some body of water that would press through the American continents and into the Pacific.

For the last of these expeditions he decided to explore the perimeter of a massive bay in Eastern Canada, now called Hudson Bay (named after this same explorer). Though he scoured its edges for a passage to the other side of the continent, he never found it. Even worse, he spent so long looking for it that the winter months came and froze the water over, trapping his boat and causing his men to starve. One by one, the crew began to die.

Henry Hudson had been in too much. Too little a sense of adventure and one would never discover anything, but too much and you consign your crew to a watery grave. Eventually the men had had enough and they sent Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small, open boat. Then the rest of the crew returned to England and reported their mutiny. Several search parties were sent to find Hudson, but not a one of them ever succeeded. To this day we do not know what became of him.

Which, of course, is where my school-assignment story came in. The point of the homework was to be creative and fun, our stories did not have to actually be plausible. My mind rushed with ideas until at last I settled on a story of Hudson and his men rowing to a nearby island, surviving for a time off of the wild, encountering a civilization of cannibals, and ultimately destroying one another by a tragic descent into madness.

I set down to the computer and wrote the entire thing out. This entire epic saga took me…four pages.

It was pitiful and I knew it. But I was young, inexperienced, and I really couldn’t fathom any way to stretch it out any longer. I didn’t know how to let a scene breathe, how to develop a character over time. All I knew to do was state one set of events after another, writing a story that was little more than a summary of a larger novel.

Towards Center)

But in spite of the disappointing performance something had woken up inside of me. I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell and I was going to keep trying at it. Bit-by-bit I learned how to dress up my scenes with dialogue and prose. Several stories later I had a piece about a superhero that weighed in at 20 pages. My next story, a medieval fantasy, was double that. I then wrote a series in five parts, each of which came in around 40-60 pages for a combined total of 200-300. At this point my parents informed me I was now using too much printer ink so my next fantasy piece was a handwritten novel of 300 pages.

When I got to the end of that story I realized that while I had increased a great deal in volume, I had only marginally improved in quality. I cringed every time I looked back over the works I had written, scribbling out mistakes and writing above the line in miniscule pen like a school teacher. I realized that I, too, need to draft and iterate, just like everybody else.

And so I started a second draft of that handwritten novel…but I never got through it. My problem was not that I had too little ambition or desire, if anything it was too much. I couldn’t sit still on a single project for too long, not when I wanted to write so many other things. Too many ideas, too little time, no happy medium anywhere to be found.

Mediums)

It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to give storytelling another try. Interestingly enough, it was another school assignment that helped bring me back. In the opening lecture of an ethics class we were told that we must launch a blog and post on it every week our thoughts about the issues we discussed through the semester. These weren’t stories that I was writing, but I started to see the benefit of short, public posts. They were manageable, allowed the author to cover a plethora of different subjects, and could easily be adapted to telling stories.

To satisfy my continued appetite for story I decided to launch this blog three years ago. I determined that I would write each piece as fully-bodied as if they had been excised from a fuller novel, but they would be only chapters and introductions, a hint of something bigger, and then on to the next thing.

This approach allowed me to be both voracious and measured at the same time, putting time into detailed scenes, yet getting to try my hand at every genre. And this approach has greatly helped me to turn writing into a constant pastime.

Yet lately I have found myself lingering too long on my “short stories,” not only carrying them past what I’d intended, but also too long for their own good. Every creator needs an editor (whether internal or external) to focus the ideas into their most ideal form, to trim off the excess and leave the vibrant core.

I’m going to try and exercise that internal editor of mine with my next story. I intend for it a very simple, very straightforward drama between two young friends. It’s a story that should be bite-sized, at the very most two posts long, and I intend to keep it that way. I’ll go ahead and flesh out each scene, but the total number of scenes should be kept to a bare minimum. Come back on Thursday as I try to walk the line between too much and too little, ever in search of that “just right” medium.

Throw Me Another Ball!

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A Mass of Faces)

It was once a selling point for movies to show a huge mass of people on camera at the same time. Epics like The Ten Commandments or Gone With the Wind would proudly boast of having “a cast of thousands.” And to be sure, it must have been quite a feat getting so many extras costumed, placed, and rehearsed.

Sometimes it wasn’t just extras, though. Some films would go to great lengths to pack one cameo into their film after another. Films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West Was Won sold themselves on having a “star studded cast.” We still see shades of this today, where the latest Avengers films work every major star of the franchise into a single, epic package. Of course most of these stars are only side-characters. Once you start writing primary motivations and arcs for more than four characters, things become exponentially more difficult.

This was one of the core pillars of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, though. The series was known for not only having a wide cast, but a cast that all had very specific, very mutually exclusive objectives. Each of them crosses the others in a multitude of ways, and it becomes a daring feat just to keep track of it all.

In the first film the intricacy was limited to the competing motivations of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, and Admiral Norrington. By the end of the third, though, you can add to that list Davy Jones, Tia Dalma, and Lord Beckett, as well as several secondary characters with individual objectives, such as Governor Swann, Bootstrap Bill, and Captain Sao Feng. It’s very impressive that the writers were able to keep track of them all, but also it becomes overwhelming in some cases. A common complaint of the later films was that it was impossible to keep track of everyone’s motivations, and why exactly they were doing the thing that they were doing at any particular moment.

Juggling Ideas)

Of course a large cast is not the only way to add complexity to a story. The Lego Movie has a more standard-sized cast of characters. Emmett, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and Lord Business are your main crew, with support from Batman, Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Finn. But what sets this movie apart is how it is bursting with style and ideas.

The animation is frequently chaotic, with so many pieces moving across screen that it is impossible to track them all. Settings change at a blistering pace, too, from a modern city to the old west to a cloud paradise to an evil businessman’s lair to a live action basement in modern suburbia. The dialogue and the jokes come rapid-fire as well, hardly ever allowing a moment for the audience to settle before being whisked off to the next piece of humor.

Yet for all this complexity the film is not incomprehensible. For while the periphery is in constant motion, the underlying story is relatively straightforward. Emmett is believed to be a prophesied chosen one, come to save the world from the oppression of a tyrant. To do so he must learn a special set of powers, as well as overcome his own insecurities. In other words, it’s a classic hero’s tale, one that the audience is abundantly familiar with. It does add a unique wrinkle or two to that formula, such as Emmett not being the chosen one and him befriending the villain rather than destroying him, but its ideas are still so grounded that we are able to follow along in spite of all the visual pandemonium.

Chaos for It’s Own Sake)

But would it work for a story to change its settings as constantly as The Lego Movie, with a cast as wide as Pirates of the Caribbean, and refusing any sort of grounding narrative to carry the audience through?

As horrible of an experience as that might sound, Monty Python and the Holy Grail fits the tumultuous bill and remains a very satisfactory piece even so.

To begin with this film is nothing more than a series of comedic skits, one after another after another. They are tangentially related to a central quest for the holy grail, but are all still very disjointed from one another. Every scene goes to a completely different setting, with absolutely no attempt to place it in the broader landscape. They all introduce new characters that are absolutely central to that one skit, but then dropped afterwards. Whole plot threads are begun without ever being concluded…including the film’s central quest of finding the holy grail!

At the very end of the film the band of knights may or may not have found out where the grail is being held, and either way they decide to have an epic battle on the matter. Thousands of soldiers appear on either side of a wide field, with a shout they surge towards one another with weapons raised…and then get stopped before they can clash together by the police and are all arrested. The End.

It is the film’s final joke, a way to make clear that this whole thing is not about the quest, nor about the narrative thread, nor about the character development. It’s about the skits. And that’s it. And if you liked them then that’s great, but if you wanted a more traditional narrative experience you’ll have to go look elsewhere.

I would say that my current story has fallen under that same category of being about its individual moments instead of an overarching narrative. The reason to read about these children playing pretend is because you like to read about children playing pretend. There really hasn’t been a greater plot or character development or greater message to it.

I have thought about adding one. I toyed with the idea that Mavis could be moving away and this is his last hurrah with his friends. But honestly I think that would distract from the central idea of having fun for it’s own sake.

What Monty Python does well, though, is not overstay its welcome. Playful indulgence remains a delight for only so long. It is best when consumed as a nice, little bite. The Time Travel Situation used to be a great deal more longwinded, it was on track to be as much as eight posts long. But thanks to writing these a couple weeks in advance I had the opportunity to go back and trim it down a great deal. Hopefully it will be fun and rambunctious, but then leave before it becomes too much. Come back on Thursday as we follow it into its final setting.

Intersecting Worlds

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Story Within a Story)

The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.

In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.

This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.

There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?

The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.

This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.

In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.

Intersecting Worlds)

There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.

This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.

It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.

This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.

I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.

Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.

Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!

Different Fits

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An Old, Familiar Tune)

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film opens with a shot of alien worlds. We descend upon one of these to a rocky wasteland, upon which a single spaceship lands. A lone spaceman emerges wearing a high-tech suit and a mask with glowing, red eyes. He pulls out a fancy scanner, which reveals that the rocky ruins around him were actually once a great city, and he follows a signal to an old, decrepit building, now more nature than artificial construct. With a push of a button his helmet disassembles itself, he puts on a pair of headphones, and presses play on a walkman. Come and Get Your Love by Redbone blares as he dances his way through the ruins.

It is a surreal moment. The starkly foreign setting has been pervaded by a song from our real-life recent history. Obviously the song doesn’t belong in that place. The movie knows this, yet it puts it there even so.

And this is a common reoccurrence in the film, too. We see all manner of strange worlds, species, and technology, and none of it has anything to do with real life as we know it. Yet all throughout we continue hearing the real-world music that Peter Quill keeps on his mixtape. Not only that, but he continually makes references to real pop culture, such as the film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon.

But as strangely out-of-place as all these references are…they actually work. They don’t break the suspension of disbelief, they don’t shatter the fourth wall, they don’t turn the drama into a parody, and they don’t make the fantastic world feel mundane. Rather the two flavors combine in a way that complement one another.

This works for two reasons. On the one hand, those of us that were born too late to experience the real-world media firsthand find the tunes to be familiar, yet also otherworldly. The past can be like a fiction to us, a story we hear of, but which is distinctly different from all of our first-hand experiences.

And for those of us who were born early enough to experience the release of that media directly, nostalgia is an experience not unlike visiting another world. A favorite song transcends its true-life story. To us it isn’t a temporary collaboration of individuals fulfilling a contractual obligation for a record deal, it is an otherworldly piece of magic that dropped from the heavens to make a spark inside of us. Indeed it seems to come from a place not unlike the magical world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It belongs there more than it does in reality.

It was this same reasoning that led me to include real-world media references in my latest story: The Time Travel Situation. My characters are in a real-life setting but they are also playing a game of pretend. I describe them as they see themselves: special government agents racing through time to stop temporal bandits! Yet as they go through this world of fantasy I have them call out real-life media that my readers might be personally familiar with. I don’t think these real-world references will feel disjointed to the reader, though, because I specifically chose media that was fantastic: the Journeyman Project games and Star Trek. Those works fit very well with my fiction, they seem as if they could easily be a part of it, and so it doesn’t break the story’s immersion to make mention of them.

Dramatic References)

So it is possible for fantasy stories to make reference of otherworldly media in a way that feels integrated and coherent. But what about a more dramatic or grounded piece?

Tom Hanks’s directorial debut That Thing You Do! cleverly recreates 1960s music culture without ever using any actual artists, labels, or songs. Everything in it is a complete fabrication, yet it all feels very real and authentic. Given that this film was trying to capture the spirit of the era without being a biopic of any actual musical group this was an excellent line to walk. If this film had interspersed its portrayal of a fictional band with scenes of real-life performers, such as The Beatles, then it would have felt disjointed. Contrast this with Forrest Gump, which is able to tell fictional stories about real-life characters like President Lyndon B Johnson and John Lenin because it is a less grounded piece, full of hyperbole and fantasy in its pseudo-real setting.

However there does still remain a way for a grounded piece of fiction to make reference to real world material. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel of a teenage boy caught in the awkward phase between youth and adulthood. He is not a fictional character, but his experiences are extremely relatable and true-to-life. The title of the film comes from when he hears the real-world song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye and misunderstands its lyrics. In reality this is a bawdy folk song, but the lyrics cause him to imagine children playing in a field, being saved from falling off the cliff by a Catcher who protects them.

It is a wonderful expression of a young man who is confused, and misinterpreting his world in fanciful, imaginative ways. But it wouldn’t work very well if this was an unknown song that the reader didn’t know the real meaning of. The author, J. D. Salinger, was using the real-world song as a shorthand to quickly communicate a complex idea to his readers.

This was my logic when I wrote Phisherman, in which I made reference to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris from the film The Way of the Dragon. That story of mine was also heavily grounded in reality while still being a fictional tale. Towards the end of it I wanted to show a memory of the main character with his father. The two of them would discuss the nature of heroes and villains in stories, and they would relate those archetypes to themselves. Now if I had made up a fictional film with fictional actors for them to reference, then the audience wouldn’t have properly understood what they were talking about. And if I had tried to explain the fictional film and characters in great detail it would have broken the flow of the story. Thus I elected to make a singular reference to real-world media. Something that would immediately get my main character, his father, and the audience all on the same page. It was a meant to be a tasteful intersection of fact and fiction that provided just enough context for a shared understanding.

As I already said, I have given fantasy-media references in my new story, The Time Travel Situation, and with my next chapter I would like to try for the more grounded kind. I will try to give a reference that utilizes a shared understanding between my characters and the audience. Come back on Thursday to see how I incorporate it.

Children at Play

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The Universal Play)

When I was young my siblings and I loved playing pretend. Obviously we were far from the only children to do this, playing pretend is something that every child seems to come up with entirely on their own. In fact it is the most universal form of play I know of. Across all cultures and all periods of time, children just gravitate to it naturally and independently

I believe that part of the reason why pretend comes so naturally to children is because they still half-believe in it all. Half of the time they aren’t trying to invent anything new, they are just processing what they think might actually be.

I remember in one of our games I was shot by the bad-guys and I appropriately collapsed dead to the ground. I waited a few moments, then promptly rose back to my feet, explaining that I had been “good enough” that I couldn’t actually die. And I wasn’t trying to make something up…I genuinely believed that if one did enough good things then they became immortal in real life. I don’t know where I got that idea. Perhaps from the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, perhaps from films where the hero is never as dead as he appears, but the point is that when I was younger life seemed more fantastic. Anything might actually exist out there if you went looking in the right place. In another of our escapades I wanted to play a character named Cordinial Fasmuch. That was a strange name, so I decided he was from Spain. Because, you know, Spain was so far away that who even knew what sort of names they might have over there?

It is a sad irony that our curiosity so often propels us to gain a volume of information, until eventually we stop believing that there are things we still don’t know. And once we stop wondering what is out there our imagination plummets.

Anything’s Possible)

Playing pretend also leads into some incredibly original material. I remember with my siblings how we mashed up genres and ideas in ways that I still haven’t seen anywhere elsewhere. I’m reminded of one piece we did in a medieval setting with a small robot that helped thwart an evil wizard until it vanished at the end. Everyone was sad, but the robot had to go away because it was time for him to be born as the princess’s new baby.

You know, as medieval robots are wont to do.

Like I said, the world was a strange and mysterious place where anything was conceivable. There were no boundaries on logic or genre and there weren’t any rules against reincarnating robots in a medieval setting. Similarly there weren’t any rules on plot structure. We didn’t waste any time worrying about whether our playtime constituted a “good story” or not, we just played.

I remember a western we did where an outlaw came to settle a score with the sheriff in town. Eventually the revelation was made that the outlaw was actually a former sheriff himself, and the sheriff was once a former outlaw. And that former-outlaw had killed the family of the former-sheriff, sending the grieving man into a quest for vengeance, resorting to any measures to exact his revenge, even breaking all the laws he had once worked to uphold. And the former-outlaw was made so afraid by this specter of retribution that he had hidden himself in the most unlikely of places imaginable: law-keeping. Thus the two had completely traded sides.

Today I would say that the plot was preposterous, with character shifts that were completely unbelievable. But at the time I never considered it. It was an interesting idea, so who cared how much suspension of disbelief was required to make it work? Back then plots were weightless, all you had to do was think of them and that was enough.

Our Landing)

Eventually our “plays” started to shift. They were still imaginative, but they starting to be inspired more and more by the imagination of others. We adhered more closely to the genre boundaries of our favorite books and movies. We still played as knights and robots, but not in the same story. We still wielded the power of magic and science, but not at the same time. Characters that died didn’t just pop back up if they had done enough good deeds in their life. Plots were expected to adhere to a three act structure, with believable character transitions throughout.

At this point we discovered a new reason for creating stories: to help process other ones that we already enjoyed. Whenever an intriguing new book or movie came along the experience wasn’t complete until we had invented our own narrative in that same world. Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were cool to watch and read about, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to be inserted into those worlds. We wanted to experience them and make them our own. Thus our imagination was spent in crafting branches on other peoples’ trees more than in planting new trees of our own.

And this pattern generally continues for us as we grow older. We become more dependent upon the structures of others until we hardly know how to play pretend without them. A craving for that old playtime develops, though, and entire entertainment industries and cultures now cater to that desire. Video games, board games, and tabletop games. Fan conventions, cosplay, and live-action-role-play. Theme parks, and movie theaters, and historic recreations. All of these try in their own way to insert us into a different world, but they are merely crutches, still structured for us to experience someone else’s creativity and not to create our own. As adults we push buttons, roll dice, and change our speech patterns to imitate other characters, but when we were children we actually became the things we pretended.

Back to Pooh Corner)

It is a commonly asked question whether we can ever find our way back to that state of free-flowing creativity. Can adults ever relearn how to play as a child, or is their wealth of knowledge too great an obstacle to overcome? Kenny Loggins sung about this conundrum in his song Return to Pooh Corner and Robin Williams faced the same problem in the movie Hook.

In my experience it is possible to return to the land of pure pretend, but it isn’t always easy. You might be at a disadvantage, but that just means it takes extra effort. With regular exercise one really does get better and better at starting the flow of imagination. One of the best methods for easing back in is to join small children in their own games. With children you can blurt out the first idea that comes to mind, like a medieval robot being reincarnated as a baby, and they accept it without judgment. With children you can stop worrying about if you’re doing it right and just do it.

In any case, we should take comfort in the fact that creativity is a fundamental part of us. It may ebb and flow, but it never truly dies.

With my next piece I’m going to try and recapture the magic of children just playing pretend. I want to write a story that is as free and uninhibited as real children at play. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes!

Taking a Look Back: Part Two

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Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Relationship Stuff)

The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.

I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.

I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.

Forms of Communication)

Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.

I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.

I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.

And the Others)

Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.

Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.

There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.

Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!

A Tale of Two Tales

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Quick Summary)

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

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

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

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

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

Is it Better This Way?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in the Details)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch Your Back!

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With Friends Like These)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snakes of History and Scripture)

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

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

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

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

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

The Tendency to Betray)

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

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

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

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

Preparation)

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

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

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