Don’t Look at Me, This Wasn’t My Idea!

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A Misstep)

Sometimes a story doesn’t go the way that you expected. Ideas that seemed so solid become mush when you try to write them out, or the pacing that felt perfect in an outline of a thousand words feels wrong when expanded to a novel of a hundred-thousand.

On Thursday I posted the third section of my latest story, in which the main character ruminated over his Order’s philosophies, had a tense encounter with the antagonist of the tale, and then moved on to “the Trials” (a series of tests meant to transition the rising generation into the seat of power).

And originally, those trials were a very simple affair. The pupils were going to have contests against one another, by which they would establish the hierarchy for their new Order. I started writing the introductory scene of the Trials in that way, but found myself gradually typing more and more slowly until my fingers came to a halt. All the momentum was gone, and I just couldn’t bring myself to push forward with the story anymore.

So instead I tried to identify why this scene felt so wrong all of a sudden. After a little examination I identified two major issues.

First of all, it felt so very, very generic. Students undergoing a competition against one another has been done many times already. From the graduating class at star fleet academy to the witches and wizards performing in the Triwizard Tournament to the hotshot antics in Top Gun to the savage life-or-death challenges of The Hunger Games.

It could have been a fine trope to include if I had had something unique to offer in it, some way to push the idea forward, but I didn’t. My plan was for the hero student to spar with the villain student, widening a rift between them and pulling the rest of the pupils over to one side or the other. It served my planned story arcs pretty well, but it wasn’t very riveting when it came time to start writing it.

And secondly, the scene where I introduced the Trials just didn’t have the right tone. There is something inherently enjoyable about a tournament, and the “fun” that I was trying put into the opening scene just didn’t match with the scenes that had come before. I was writing the elders as introducing the Trials with a jovial, ringmaster sort of grandeur, and it was in awkward contrast to the deep unease that I had just been describing in Tharol. Every moment of the story thus far had been weighed by a particular gravity. Things had been either serious, contemplative, or laced with suspicion. I needed a scene that expanded upon or brought closure to that tension, not fly in the face of it.

But How to Fix It)

Which explains how I rejected the original concept for the Trials, but how did I end up at the far more shocking scene of a Master rushing at his acolytes with a sword?!

Frankly there wasn’t anything deliberate about it. I just stared blankly at my computer screen, wondering what it was the story really needed in this moment. To help get the ideas flowing I read back over the paragraphs that had been leading up to this moment, and again noted the sense of rising tension in them. I was writing this story like it was expecting something explosive to happen now. As I have already mentioned, at this point in the tale Tharol has been showing a deep unease, the tension in him is mounting, and now would be an excellent time for it burst.

There was a second reason for going this route as well, one that was far more pragmatic. The story needed to get moving, plain and simple. It had had a pretty slow intro, and if it continued along at the same pace it would take forever to get completed. Like Luke Skywalker finding his childhood home suddenly burned to the ground, my story needed a solid kick in the pants.

With those two elements combined (the need to answer the sense of rising tension and the need to thrust the story into its main action) it was clear that this next scene needed to be quite visceral and shocking. And as this was a cryptic Order, where any strange practice might be lurking around the corner, and as I had already suggested that there was always a mysteriously complete transition from one generation to the next, the idea of a war between the students and the teachers came quite naturally.

Where that Leaves Me Now)

But now that I’ve written it and published it I have to live with it. It may have been the right choice for the scene, but I need to make sure it is the right choice for all the rest of the story as well. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure where the story goes from here. I had a loose outline to begin with, and now it has been shredded.

In this situation I have to be okay with letting go of anything that I had planned before. If I try to write the story as originally intended, and also be true to this new arc I have found myself on, then the story is going to be handicapped in both directions.

Now I don’t have to dump everything I had before. Rather I am looking at each individual piece, evaluating if it still has a place in the new arc, and either keeping it, altering it, or tossing it. I’m finding that there are still a few core ideas that I would like to keep, but they will need to be a bit different now to make sense.

Since I won’t be keeping everything, some large holes are going to remain in my outline, and those need to be filled with something new. I’ll use the altered pieces that I retained from the first outline, building off them until the gaps between them have been healed.

Will the new story be better? Well, I hope so. But I honestly can’t say, because I haven’t seen it yet. I think it stands in a more interesting place at this moment, so hopefully that will pay off in the end. My greatest fear is that my next section will come across for exactly what it is: a story reforming itself, establishing entirely new bones at an angle to the old ones. Come back on Thursday to see whether this new beast takes shape in a smooth or disjointed way, and whether it is better for having undergone the change.

I Know What You’re Thinking

Mind-Reading)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the nameless narrator is silently deliberating the plight of an unsuccessful local actor. Just as he comes to this particular piece of consideration, his companion, the ingenious detective C. Auguste Dupin, interjects to say that yes, the local actor talent’s would be better matched to a role in the variety theater.

Understandably, the narrator is confounded that Dupin could have known exactly the matter that he was privately thinking on. Dupin explains that it was merely a matter of simple deduction. Fifteen minutes ago a fruiter had stumbled into the narrator after tripping on the poorly cobbled street. From that point Dupin had anticipated the logical train of thought that his companion would follow, and used little clues to confirm his theories, such as when the narrator would mutter something under his breath, look heavenward, or display a particular expression on his face.

This same novelty is played out to much the same effect in two Sherlock Holmes cases, where he logically follows the thoughts of his companion Watson. It is a bit of a stretch, of course. Only in the perfect world of fiction would one be able to so perfectly predict the exact train of thought of another. Such a thing could never occur in the real world.

A Magical Joke)

Or could it?

When real-life magicians pull back the curtain and reveal the methods of their tricks, they invariably all come to the point that magic is nothing more than the art of misdirection. They conceal where the triumphant reveal is coming from by distracting everyone with something else instead. So they not only know what you aren’t thinking about (the solution), but also what you are thinking about (the red herring).

And this is not the only practice where a performer reads the minds of others. Many jokes are built upon directing the listener’s thought to one conclusion, only to surprise them with another. The surprise at the end only works, though, if you know that the audience is thinking about the wrong conclusion. Consider the example of this joke:

A young woman was checking out at a grocery store. 

The cashier scanned her products: one microwave dinner, one bottle of soda, one pillow, and one toothbrush.

"You must be single," he smiled at her.

"Well...yes, actually I am!" she laughed. "How could you tell?"

"Because you're ugly."

Now this isn’t actually funny because of the punchline at the end. It’s funny because of the second sentence, where it directs your thoughts in a particular direction. Hearing a list of one item, one item, one item has us logically conclude that the cashier knows she is single because she is only buying solitary items. And because we have been carefully put into this state of mind, then the punchline actually comes across as surprising, and by extension funny.

Directing the Reader)

So yes, it might be unrealistic to follow a person’s train of thought under normal circumstances, but you can do it if you have laid the track for that train to follow. Once you have a person’s attention, you have the opportunity to steer their mind to a place of your choosing. And knowing where their thoughts now are, you may subvert or confirm their expectations at will.

This is why the final scene between the Joker and Batman is so effective at the end of The Dark Knight. In this film our hero has been foiled by his nemesis time and time again. The Joker has expertly pulled the strings in one game after another, outwitted any who have tried to stop him, and hurt people that we thought were untouchable. All of his prior successes trains us to assume that he will only continue to be successful.

Not only this, but his antics, though terrible, are also fascinating. We find ourselves morbidly curious to see how each of his little experiments will play out. Will Batman break his one rule to save the woman he loves? Which will he choose between personal desire and the heart of the city? What does it take to topple a paragon of good?

And under this context we come to his plot at the end. There is a ferry filled with everyday, working-class citizens, and there is one filled with convicts. Each has been fitted with a bomb, and each boat has been given the detonator to the other boat. So who will destroy the other first? The hardened criminals, because that’s the obvious choice? Or the citizens, because their hearts are really just as self-interested as anyone else?

Joker has had his way every time before, so our intuition is that he will do so again. And the conundrum he has set up, while unethical, is fascinating. Both of these facts leave us expecting to see it resolve in one ship blowing up or the other.

And because the film has so carefully maneuvered us to this expectation, it is now able to surprise us. Because neither of the two possibilities that we anticipate are what come to pass.

Rather than preserve themselves, each boat decides that they would rather spare the other, even though it might mean their own undoing. No one dies at all. It is an incredibly impactful moment, but it only works because it catches us by surprise. If from the beginning we had been thinking that this outcome was possible, we would not be so moved when it happens. By controlling our minds, by knowing what we were thinking, The Dark Knight made a moment deeply meaningful.

In my own story I have just introduced Tharol’s conundrum: he depends on the order for support, but also taking issue with some of that order’s tenets. He wants to be a good student, but he just can’t make sense of these philosophies.

This line of thought is going to be continued in my next piece, encouraging my readers to grapple with these questions themselves, and to anticipate the story to continue its ponderous, theoretical bent.

But it’s not going to. The story is going to take a dramatic shift that I intend to have be extremely shocking. So much so, that it will hopefully be some time before the audience realizes that we’re still dealing with the same philosophical questions from before, just from a much more active, hands-on approach.

Come back on Thursday to see how I try to lead the readers’ minds into the channel that I want them to follow, and then pull the rug out from underneath.

A Small Appetizer

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A Story Dragging Its Feet)

In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back we watch as the core heroes are divided into two groups, and we follow each one’s different arc until they converge back together at the end. Thus Luke and R2-D2 travel to Dagobah where Luke undergoes tutelage from Jedi Master Yoda, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are pursued in a long, extended chase, pursued by the relentless reach of Darth Vader.

But while these are the main arcs of the story, we don’t even get started on them until we’re more than a half hour into the film. Instead we open with an extended prologue, one where our heroes are trying to survive in an ice-planet’s secret base. Luke is nearly lost, but manages to survive with some newly-introduced force powers and the help of his friends. Then Imperial drones locate evidence of the base, and finally the Empire arrives out of hyperspace to eradicate the Rebels. A massive battle takes place before the Rebels must retreat, in which our main characters split into the two parties mentioned above.

Does having such a long introductory sequence serve a purpose then? Could it have been removed or abbreviated, to make a tighter, more efficient story? Given how well regarded that film’s story is, it would seem that audience’s weren’t upset for the prolonged intro. In fact it was such a successful formula that Star Wars repeated the same pattern with the Han Solo rescue sequence at the start of Return of the Jedi.

An Old Pattern)

But it isn’t as if Star Wars was unusual to employ this sort of story-telling structure. James Bond and Ethan Hunt always open their spy thrillers with some heist that introduces the characters and world before getting into the real meat of the latest conspiracy. The Matrix shows a relatively unimportant run-in between Trinity and the agents before we’re introduced to Neo. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone details Harry’s regular life a full three chapters (more than a sixth of the entire book) before he even finds out that he’s a wizard.

It isn’t as though Star Wars was breaking new ground with its pattern either. The Lord of the Rings novel, published two-and-a-half decades prior opens with a birthday party that has virtually nothing to do with its epic saga. Bilbo could have easily given Frodo the ring in a much more succinct way. And we can go back even further. A Tale of Two Cities, written two centuries earlier, spends its entire first chapter only laying the backdrop of the story. Then it spends nearly the entire second chapter with flavor-text, until we finally reach some dialogue that is relevant to the greater story right before the beginning of chapter three.

Clearly these stories are doing something right, though, for these are some of the most beloved, enjoyable tales of all time!

Settling In)

When I try to think of stories that don’t utilize this particular pattern, I realize there is a set of examples from after the centuries-old novels of Charles Dickens, but before the recent films of modern Hollywood.

Older films, those made in the first half of the 20th Century, were far more likely to take off with the main arcs right from the get-go. The Magnificent Seven opens with us seeing the main villain and his gang of bandits oppressing the city that will hire gunslingers to protect them. Charade opens with a man being thrown off a train, whose death will catalyze everything that follows. West Side Story opens with a musical number that summarizes the tension between the two gangs that is quickly driving towards serious violence.

So what is it that each of these films has in common? They are from the era where films featured the credits at the beginning of the movie, and would play the main themes from the film’s score while they were being displayed. This created a critical period for the audience to settle into the mood of the story, even before the first act began.

Later films moved the credits to the end, and obviously novels have always had the ability to skip straight to the pages of Chapter One. In these mediums it becomes necessary to start from a much colder opening. Thus we see in these examples the wide use of an introductory sequence just to get the audience warmed up to the story and its styles before really getting underway.

Palate Cleansers)

Go to an orchestra and notice how the musicians tuning their instruments prepares you to receive their symphony. Or go to a rock band and see how the smaller group that opens the show gets you pumped up for the main event. Notice how television shows often include a short title introduction where they play the main theme and show short clips to get you into the right mindset.

Audience members are coming in from any variety of contexts when they first set down to a story. Because of this, novels, films, television shows, and music all make use of an extended introduction to get the audience out of that prior context, and into the story’s. By the time the initial heist, or musical number, or side plot has resolved, the audience is well tuned to the story’s rhythms, and can now give the main arcs their full attention.

Of course this is not a rule. Not every story takes such an approach, and not every one needs to. Perhaps your story really does need to start off at full force right from the start, but it is well worth considering whether the technique will help you with what you are trying to accomplish or not.

On Thursday I decided to experiment with this structure, having an entire first chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the story’s narrative. But what it did do was introduce the world, the tone, and two of the central characters. In a short story this sort of introductory period might not have been the best fit, but I enjoyed the practice.

On Thursday I’ll be posting the second piece of that story, and we’ll see whether the time spent in the introduction helps the rest of it move more smoothly or not. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Just a Little Innocent Manipulation

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Cunning Little Devils)

Eddie Mannix should not take the new job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. He should retain his faith in the magic of cinema instead, for the silly stories they make in their studios really do make a difference in the lives of those that view them, and he must never forget that fact.

These are the great truths in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, and I can pick out the solitary scene where I became completely convinced of them. It happened about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Mannix was tempted once more by the Lockheed executive to leave behind the “kid stuff” of Hollywood for a real job.

Up until this moment the Lockheed executive has seemed to have some valid points, but then he does something undeniably slimy. In a previous meeting he offered Mannix a cigarette, to which Mannix had responded by saying he was trying to quit. Quitting the unhealthy habit is important to his wife, to his family that he cares for, and a way that he genuinely wants to improve himself. Here, in their later meeting, the Lockheed executive can see that Mannix is conflicted, and once again offers a cigarette with a knowing smile.

Just like that all of the valid points of the Lockheed executive become only the cunning arguments of a devil. This man does not have Mannix’s best interests at heart at all. He is willing to compromise and manipulate him, to use the man’s weakness against him in the guise of friendship. Mannix turns him down. Turns him down for the smoke, turns him down for the job. I cheered him on for it, and I bought into the same realization that he did at that moment: that the make-believe of movies is more real than all the cynicism of the “real world.”

But then, as I thought about it, hadn’t I just been manipulated myself? The movie wanted me to feel a certain way about Mannix’s choice between dreams and practicality, and so it had intentionally cast the voice of practicality in a body that was slimy and conniving. Couldn’t it have used the same trick in the opposite direction and just as easily persuaded me the other way?

Devils in Angel’s Clothing?)

Now let’s bring in Exhibit B: George Bailey. This man is the main character of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he finds himself caught in a very similar conundrum as Eddie Mannix. All his life he has burned with an intense desire to chase his dreams, to build wonders, to travel the world. But unlike Mannix, he is not actually living that dream. At each step practicality has gotten in his way instead. Duty to family and friends has kept him far from the life he wishes to lead, and he’s grown very depressed as a result.

Then, in the film’s final act, a charming little man appears to convince him that the life of wonder he’s always wanted has been in front of him all along. Clarence the angel is sweet, innocent, and loyal. He speaks with a simple, uncomplicated wisdom, and uses it to make clear the great benefit one accomplishes just by doing their duty.

Is it really so wrong to make sacrifices for your family after all?

By the end of the film George Bailey is convinced and so are we. The film’s best trick is temporarily severing him from the life that he had. The sudden loss of wife and children cuts both he and the audience very deep, and we rejoice with him when they are reunited. We want nothing more than for him to never lose them again.

And as with Hail, Caesar, we have been manipulated into agreeing with the film’s core thesis.

Bias, Bias Everywhere)

So…each of these films manipulate our emotions to get us to agree with their message. But honestly, if we’re going to take offense at that, then we’re going to have to throw out essentially every story ever told.

Just consider how elements like swelling music in a film tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the emotions that the director wishes you to feel in that moment. Consider how Shakespeare’s heroes give a passionate soliloquy to win the audience over to their cause. Consider how the author lays bare their characters’ minds to prove the virtue or vice behind their actions. All of these make declarative statements of what is right to think about a situation, and what is wrong. Just as with real people, every story is going to have a bias, and to ask them not to is to to ask them not to be made by people.

Every now and then there is a story that tries to take a neutral stance, tries to show both sides of an argument equally. But even then there are biases towards what “equal” means.

Turn it Over to the Jury)

Any story that has a message is going to frame it in whatever way best supports that message. Some stories are going to have an overall message that you do not agree with, and are going to utilize character archetypes that you feel are incorrect and even harmful. And other stories will give an overall message that you do agree with, and utilizes character archetypes that you feel are fair and accurate.

But these are actually the exception. Far more common are the stories that will fall somewhere in between. Stories that you only partially agree with the message of, or that you do agree with, but still use archetypes that you still feel are incorrect and even harmful. I have read books and seen films that I liked every piece leading towards the central theme, but still did not like the central theme itself.

And this is fine.

People are not so delicate that they cannot handle mixed messages. You aren’t going to break someone by challenging their preconceived notions and you’re not required to coddle their every opinion. Every day people are exposed to conflicting opinions, and we have learned how to parse through the pieces, reject the ones we disagree with, and hold to the ones that we believe to be true.

In the moment we might feel that Hail, Caesar makes a good point, and we might feel that It’s a Wonderful Life makes a good point as well. But after we’ve had some time, been able to weigh them against our own conscience, we’ll still make our own decision on the matter. In fact, we might find that we can believe in a balance between both practicality and dreams.

And so I don’t feel guilty that in my last story I influenced the reader to reject the father’s ideals by painting him in a negative light. That was my archetype to support my central message, and you can take or reject it as you feel fit. On Thursday I will post the first entry in my new story, and in that chapter you can bet I will already be casting my characters in positive and negative lights, trying to influence you to side with some and against others. Pay attention to how I do that, and also consider how you are doing the same in your own stories.

Play it Again

black cassette tape on top of red and yellow surface
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It Sounded Different the First Time)

There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.

At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.

It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.

Thus the the line

He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”

in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as

He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws.  And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.

Echoes of the Past)

This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.

Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin

And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.

But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.

The Perfect Storm)

In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.

In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.

Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.

With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Self-Contradictions

crowd reflection color toy
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Disproving Your Own Point)

Very early on in The Matrix, we have established to us that the “Agents” are too powerful to be fought against. To stand your ground against them is to certainly die. Multiple times this idea is re-emphasized: “if you see an Agent…you run.”

And so it seems an unthinkable thing when Neo states that he is going to go back into The Matrix to free his mentor Morpheus, who is being interrogated by three of those very Agents. Neo feels that he must do this, though, because Morpheus has only come to this fate because of a misplaced belief. Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One, the being that is destined to save mankind, the only individual who will ever stand a chance of defeating an Agent, and also the computer overlord that they represent.

But Neo is not the One. He is convinced of this, and he cannot have it on his conscience for Morpheus to die for an invalid cause. If he were the One, he would be able to go in there, rescue Morpheus, and save the day. But he is not the One, and so he will go in there, rescue Morpheus, and willingly die to make the trade.

What Neo is not accounting for is that is exactly the sort of selflessness that defines being “the One.” Being “the One” is not so much about having an inherent power, as the ability to break preconceived notions and rules. The rule is “if you see an Agent, you run,” and he is breaking it. He is not running, which means he isn’t the run-of-the-mill side character that he thinks he is. By proving his non-Oneness, he actually achieves the opposite.

Catch-22)

Which, of course, is a Catch-22. It is a rare thing for the title of a book to also be the definition of an entirely new term, but the idea at the heart of this novel is so engrossing and so succinct that it was inevitable. The story is chock full of Catch-22s, and it explains to the reader just what it means to be “Catch-22.”

It means a paradox. A very special situation where to obtain what one wishes, one must make the obtaining of that wish impossible. Yossarian does not want to fly any more suicide missions for the military, and he knows that he can accomplish this if he proves that he is mad. However attempting to be insane for the purpose of being thrown out of the military only proves how truly sane and fit to fly suicide missions he must be. If he were truly insane, he would undertake the missions with a cool head. Either way, he’s stuck.

Condemning Oneself)

This reminds me somewhat of a situation in the story Les Miserables. Here, runaway convict Jean Valjean has successfully created a new identity for himself under the name of Monsieur Madeleine. He has become known for his warmth and generosity, and has even been made the Mayor of a city. He has genuinely good intentions, and truly lives as a different man from the cold brute he was when in the labor camps.

Things become difficult for him, then, when his former guard at that camp comes to the city. Javert is initially unable to recognize the old convict in the guise of this refined gentlemen, but Valjean is still very careful to not reveal the truth.

Then, one day on the streets, Valjean’s deception is put to the test. A man has become trapped beneath a heavy cart. Monsieur Madeleine, the benevolent master, ought to try and help him, and Jean Valjean, the hardened criminal, has the immense strength necessary to lift the cart all on his own. But Javert is present at this scene, and if he witnesses such a feat of strength he will surely wonder where it might have come from. Valjean is a man divided. The only way to be true to himself is to condemn himself. Ultimately he rushes to the rescue, and just as anticipated, Javert realizes who this Governor really is.

The Tragic Wanter)

There is another example of this in the Disney animated feature Aladdin. Jafar has a terrible lust for power, one that constantly moves from one lofty goal to another. He is already the Royal Vizier, but now he wants to be Sultan. He becomes Sultan, but then wants to be “the most powerful sorcerer in the world.” Still that isn’t enough, and he craves the infinite power of being a Genie.

But as it turns out, while Genies do possess unfathomable power, they are powerless to control it. They are eternally enslaved beings, only able to flex their power at the behest of a master. Thus Jafar’s pursuit of his most enhanced self only leads to the loss of himself.

This, too, is the downfall of Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles picture Citizen Kane. The title character is intelligent and motivated, he possesses a winning personality and good looks, fate has even smiled on him with opportunity and fortune. He has it all, but he is miserable and distrusting even so. In spite of all his having, he is afraid of losing, and so he strives to have more firmly, and paradoxically it is due to that grasping that he ends up losing what he had.

Take, for example, his relationship to Emily Norton, and later to Susan Alexander. Each of these women is perfectly content to love him, but he keeps trying to buy their affections even so, to push them to greater happiness and fulfillment, smothering them until there doesn’t seem to be anything sincere left to their romance any more. And so it continues until each of the women that he has leaves him.

In my own story, I have written a character who has also painted himself into a corner. Julian gave in to a moment of temptation and ate extra portions of food that belonged to his shipmates. He assured himself at the time that they would not survive anyway, and no one could therefore condemn him for the crime.

But they did survive. Now Captain Molley has awoken, and Julian’s greatest fear is that he will be found out for his treachery. So he has lied, suggesting that Captain Molley has been asleep for a number of days, which explains why there are more portions of food missing.

As we will see in my next post, though, this lie will lead Captain Molley to give up on their search for the fabled Pirate’s Cove. He will assume that if they have drifted aimlessly for so many days, that any attempt to navigate to such a small destination is impossible.

Thus Julian finds himself in quite the pickle. Does he come forward with the truth, and damn himself as a food-thief? Or does he remain silent, and damn the whole crew to wander without any course? Either way he has broken himself. Come back on Thursday to see exactly how this will play out in the story’s finale.

Do You Like Me?

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Strict or Lax)

One decade ago I served a mission for my church, and there were a lot of rules that we missionaries were expected to abide by. Our days were regimented out on a very specific schedule, we were to follow a rigid dress code, we avoided all forms of entertainment media, and we were expected to uphold a very careful image.

Some missionaries took the rules to heart. They sincerely tried their best every day to follow them to the letter. Other missionaries, considered them to be suggestions, and were known for being perpetual rule breakers.

What I found very interesting was that the strict missionaries and the lax ones would butt heads over protocol, but both sides still got along with one another as friends. Even if missionaries disagreed, even the lax ones could respect the sincerely strict, and the strict ones could respect the sincerely lax.

But there was a third class of missionaries, and these ones rubbed everyone the wrong way: the two-faced missionary.

There were a few missionaries that would put on pious airs whenever they were around our mission president, and then cut loose whenever they were in private. No one was able to respect them, because they were too slippery to really know who you were dealing with.

After observing this pattern, I have come to see that it is true everywhere. We can have disagreements with others, yet still respect them so long as they are sincere. But insincerity, or two-facedness? No one is comfortable with that.

 

The Slimy Villain)

Consider Tony Wendice from the classic Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The movie opens with him plotting to murder his wife, Margot Wendice, and blackmailing an accomplice into carrying out the deed for him. His watertight plan runs into trouble when his crony, Charles Swann, bungles the task, and ends up being killed by Margot in self defense.

Not willing to be defeated, Tony wrangles things so that he can instead frame his wife for murder, making it appear that Charles had been blackmailing Margot, and she had killed him in cold blood. This is, of course, a sticky operation, and Tony must deflect every suspicion of his own involvement. He goes to to great lengths to appear as noble to the inspectors as he can.

This has an interesting effect, because we, the audience, know that he is lying through his teeth with every word. And so the more positive he makes himself look to the other characters in the story, the more shameless and depraved he becomes to the audience. When he finally does get his just desserts, it is a very satisfying payoff for the viewer.

 

The Insincere Peddler)

Getting the audience to hate the villain by casting him as insincere makes sense. Interestingly, though, it is also possible to begin with a character that is slippery, and then transform them into the hero instead. Indeed, a common protagonist is that of the insincere peddler. This is a character who goes to great lengths to convince others of something that they, themselves, do not believe in. Their character arc thus begins as slippery snake-oil salesmen, but they can evolve into genuine believers by the end.

Consider, for example, Professor Emelius Browne in the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The man is a sham, who copies spells and incantations from old books, then sells them to any sap who is dumb enough to believe in such nonsense. He is in for a surprise, then, when one of his students, Miss Price, turns up on his doorstep and demonstrates that the spells work perfectly well for her and always have.

Through a series of adventures Browne begins to care for Miss Price, and also for the orphaned children under her care. He feels the pull towards family, but he resists it. Just as how he has dodged his nation’s war, he also runs away from this responsibility, ever remaining the shill.

But then, of course, fate intervenes and Miss Price and the children are captured by Nazi soldiers. Browne desperately wants to come to their rescue, but doing so is going to take a little bit of magic on his part. For the first time, he has to start believing in something.

He manages to pull it off, and it becomes the turning point for his character. By the end of the film he has supported Miss Price in her battle with the invading forces, pledged to be a father to the orphaned children, and joined the army to do his civic duty in the war. We didn’t care for him at the outset of the story, but he really does win us over by the end.

 

The Disbelieving Missionary)

Another fine example of a character who does not practice what he preaches can be found in the film I Can Only Imagine. This is the story of the real-life band Mercy Me, and specifically of its lead-singer Bart Millard.

Bart is desperate for success in the spiritual music scene, and is undoubtedly a very talented musician. But what he gets told over and over again is that he comes across as fake and insincere in his message. He talks about grace and healing, but is himself brimming with resentment and hurt. The last thing he wants to do is reconnect with his abusive father who wounded him, but it makes every song about forgiveness ring hollow.

After he has had his hopes and dreams crushed a few times he finally goes back to the skeletons in his closet, finds closure for past wrongs, and ultimately feels the very grace he’s been trying to sell to others. At long last his songs ring true.

These positive examples begin with the insincere and jaded, and end with the genuine and believing. There is a great cathartic satisfaction in that transformation, and the greater the dislike at the beginning, the greater the enjoyment in learning how to love these characters by the end.

 

Now in my own story we have a particularly two-faced character in Julian. The man continually attests to his own virtue, but shamelessly claws for every advantage that he can. This is interesting, because he is not the pirate in this story.

Bartholomew, on the other hand, is a ruthless cutthroat, but he has the decency to admit as much. He isn’t a worthy character, but we respect him for at least seeing his own flaws clearly. We may not approve of him, but it is easier to like him.

Captain Molley, of course, is the truly virtuous character. He has his principles and he holds to them sincerely. He isn’t a particularly warm character, but again we can respect him because of his being so true to himself.

I want to take these characters, their convictions, and do some interesting things with them in the second half of the story. Julian is not going to have an arc of redemption, this isn’t the right sort of story for that, but I do want to make him pitiable. I want to let my audiences remain disdainful of his slippery nature, but also feel bad for his plight.

For Bartholomew, I want to reveal a more slippery side than we have perceived thus far. Indeed, I want the audience to realize that he is no more sincere than Julian, he’s only better at hiding his second face.

And for Captain Molley, I want to put a few chinks in his armor. It won’t be that he is a two-faced liar, though, just a man under considerable strain, who feels his grip on himself breaking.

I’m excited to see how this all turns out, and hope that you will find it satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see how I start developing these dramas.

You Never Really Knew Me

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Characters Exposed)

Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.

Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.

Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!

That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!

 

Flip the Script)

Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.

This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?

The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.

Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.

 

Suspense)

And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.

Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.

But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under  him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.

 

Terror)

Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.

Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.

His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.

We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.

True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.

 

I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!

A Precarious Agreement

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Enemies or Friends?)

Early on in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner find themselves at odds aboard a stolen ship. Will Turner is deeply conflicted about working with a pirate to save the woman that he loves, and Jack Sparrow is secretly planning to sell the young man over to the pirates to aid his own agenda.

During their impasse, Jack Sparrow gains the upper hand, and has the opportunity to drop Will Turner into a watery grave. But then he explains that while he can kill William, he cannot man the boat on his own. And so he rescues his uneasy compatriot, and William realizes that it is the same for him. He may not like Jack Sparrow…but he does need him.

This scene is extremely entertaining in its own right, but what I find particularly brilliant is how it gives the audience the thesis for the entire series moving forward. For throughout the rest of this film, and each following one, the tangled web of begrudging alliances only grows and grows.

William becomes a pirate to rescue the woman he loves. Elizabeth pretends to love Jack so that she can chain him to the mast for the Kraken to eat. Governor Swann becomes a pawn of the East India Trading Company to protect his daughter. And Jack Sparrow…well he winds up manipulating anyone and everyone just to wrangle his ship back!

And all this makes for a very engaging premise. Knowing that every pair of allies might become mortal enemies at the next opportune moment keeps us eager to continue watching. Though the films have executed on that premise to varying levels of success, the premise itself is still strong.

 

Desire for Drama)

Why is this so engaging though? Why do we like to see natural enemies forced to work together? What is so entertaining about volatile compromises? Are we just old gossips that crave drama? Perhaps.

But I think that there is more to it than this. The simple fact is that a story where the characters have no tension is not a story at all. It is stagnant. Momentum only builds when there is friction for each scene to push off of, characters only develop if they are required to face competing ideals, and themes only become powerful when they withstand challenges. In short, if a story features no tension, then it simply states its opening situation, and then every following scene can only reaffirm that.

Of course, virtually all stories do feature tension, which comes in the form of a central antagonist, but usually that antagonist is not present with the main characters for the majority of their their journey. Much of the story, by necessity, will take place when there are only friendly characters present, in which case the only way to have tension is by sowing it among those friends.

Jack Sparrow and William Turner each have a central antagonist in the form of Captain Barbossa, but each is far more defined by the friend-enemy relationship they share with each other.

 

Tension to Build)

Of course, one should not write tension into a story just to write tension into a story. Do not make your two central characters hate each other simply because that is the thing central characters do. If you are sowing character tension in a narrative, it should be for a purpose.

The first possible purpose would be to have tension that is pushing a character towards their transformation. The character is going through their arc, and the tension is necessary for getting them to change in the way that you need them to.

Consider the example of Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. He begins his arc as a jaded scoundrel who openly admits to caring only for himself. He has to be goaded into every good deed by promises of wealth, and through it all he gripes and complains. He is adding a great deal of tension to every scene he is a part of, and it is tension that establishes how his heroics are forced and go against his natural grain.

And that is why the payoff is so satisfying, when at last he is able to run away from all this heroic nonsense…only to come charging right back into the fray, all of his own volition! It turns out that all his reluctance and moaning wasn’t him fighting his fellow protagonists, it was him fighting against his own conscience. A fight, thankfully, that he loses.

 

Tension to Break)

Of course, tension can also be sown to break apart unions. Perhaps two characters are able to set aside their differences when their interests are aligned, but what about when those interests shift? It is fascinating to read a story where each new scene might be the moment that the tension breaks into full-on conflict.

For this consider the temporary alignment of Gollum with Frodo and Sam. In their first encounter, Gollum attempts to murder the other two and steal the One Ring that is in their possession. He finds that they aren’t such easy prey, though, and overpowering them no longer becomes an option.

Now the tension begins. Gollum has to be near the Ring, his entire soul is wrapped up in it, but he cannot possess it while Frodo does. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam obviously cannot trust Gollum, but they do need a guide into lands that Gollum happens to be very familiar with.

And so an uneasy alliance is formed. Gollum becomes a member of their party, and the trio continue their trek towards Mordor. And all the while we, the audience, keep wondering when that union will break. We are sure that it will only be a matter of time until Gollum sees an opportunity to dispose of the two hobbits.

Opposite the example with Han Solo, the tension is implied, rather than explicit. For on the surface Gollum acts endearing and agreeable, he pretends that there isn’t any tension whatsoever, yet all the while is seething with malicious intent. Our anticipation for their fallout is finally satisfied in the horrors of Shelob’s Lair. In that moment Gollum truly seals his fate. He has proven the irredeemable nature of his character, and his eventual condemnation is assured.

 

Sowing discord among your allied characters can create intrigue for your audience. But more importantly, it can be an excellent tool for developing characters, and bringing them through a dynamic and changing arc.

In my current story I feature three characters who have a great deal of tension between them. They must work together as the sole survivors of a shipwreck, but also they are motivated to kill one another to preserve their limited resources. In what ways will this tension develop their characters and solidify their fates? Come back on Thursday to see!

Foundations and Spires

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Ebbs and Flows and Thunderous Crashes)

Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.

Sometimes.

There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.

Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.

 

The Foundation)

First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.

One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:

“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”

“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”

“Well…”

And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.

This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.

 

The Spire)

At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.

Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.

Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.

The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”

This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.

With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.