The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.

He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.

This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.

I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.

Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.

This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.

  1. Using the Essence of a Story
  2. Using the Style of a Story
  3. Using the Plot of a Story

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

 

Using the Essence)

As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.

For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.

 

Using the Style)

But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.

Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.

But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

 

Using the Plot)

I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.

The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.

More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.

 

Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.

I like to think that I have been firmly in the balance of original work with Instructions Not Included, and I’m very excited to get on with that story. Come back Thursday to see where it is going next!

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Character Wrinkles

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At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”

There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.

My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.

Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are  just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.

Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.

In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.

My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.

For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.

I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.

My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.

The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”

He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.

Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.

I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!

Principle and Example

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Repeated Tales)

In old France a beautiful woman named Belle is shocked by the hideous exterior of a cruel Beast. Fate intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, a spell is broken, and the two live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, over in Old England Elizabeth Bennet is shocked by the haughty snobbery of Mr. Darcy. Fate again intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and again over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, previous hurts are mended, and the two live happily ever after.

Despite the similarity between these two stories, Pride and Prejudice is not assumed to be a reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps Jane Austen was subconsciously influenced by the themes of that earlier work, but then every author is at least somewhat shaded by the ideas that have gone before.

It’s especially interesting to me how similar these two stories are, even when the setting of each is so different. Beauty and the Beast comes from a land of magic and fantasy, Pride and Prejudice is grounded strictly in a natural world, though perhaps one inhabited by caricatures.

Batman is the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with more radiation-powered bad-guys. The James Cameron film Avatar is the same story beats as Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, but now set on an alien world. Star Wars takes the feudal Japan of The Hidden Fortress, and trades it for the vast emptiness of space. Ulysses drops the mythic gods of The Odyssey in favor of 20th century Dublin.

It seems perfectly clear that themes and basic plot constructs are not confined to particular genres or world-settings. It is possible to tell the same story with entirely different trappings. What then is the difference between a story set in realism and another set in fantasy? Are there certain strengths to each, or are they truly interchangeable?

 

Example vs Principle)

I’ve known several women who have said they want to find a man like Mr Darcy. I don’t think I know any, though, who have said they want to find a man like the Beast. Though their stories are the same and both characters are works of fiction, the Beast seems somehow more pretend to us. It feels strange to say that one would want to live in a world so completely given over to fantasy.

A story that is grounded in reality provides for us an “example.” Though it is not real, it feels real. It is an instance of life that reminds us of similar realities we ourselves have experienced. The applications of its lessons are obvious and direct, one can immediately understand that one should never judge a book by its cover in matter of the heart. However, because the lesson is so closely coupled with a lifelike situation, it is more limited in its application. For example it would be a stretch to apply the principles from Pride and Prejudice to issues of racial strife, but it is a far easier thing to do with Beauty and the Beast.

This is because more fantastic stories tend to provide us a “principle.” Principles might be tougher to chew on at first, but they are considerably more adaptable to a broad spectrum of scenarios. The Beast isn’t really a person, he’s an idea: ugliness. And ugliness can be recognized in all manner of different forms.

So which method should we learn by? Example or principle? Well… both, really. We try to teach our children principles, and then we model those principles by our example. A mathematics lesson usually begins by illustrating the principle in the form of a proof, and then shows its application with an example problem. Aspiring artists are educated on the theory behind color, shape, and balance, and are then shown specific examples from the masters that showcase the implementations of these principles.

Each of us is partial to one form of learning or the other, although we all benefit at least somewhat from both. There’s more than enough reason, therefore, to write stories that fall on either side of reality.

 

Blends and Exceptions)

Of course not every story falls neatly onto just one side of the spectrum or the other. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story set in a realistic world and populated by believable characters. It’s just that two of those characters happen to be different incarnations of the same man, brought about by use of a fantastic serum. In Utterson we find a realistic example of a man dealing with a friend in trouble, and in Jekyll and Hyde we have a more allegorical depiction of addiction.

In recent decades the trend has been to take the more fantastic worlds, and inhabit them with more lifelike characters. Where superheroes like Superman were initially written to be allegorical idols of perfection, now they are usually just everyday people like you and me in a world just like our own. I’m not sure if that is better, worse, or neither, it’s just an interesting trend to note.

And of course, there are many stories that don’t have a point at all. They aren’t made to be relatable to us either by example or principle, they are merely meant to entertain us through a swashbuckling adventure. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, lacks a relatable setting, is full of hyperbolic characters, and does not attempt any meaningful allegorical lesson. It is, however, just a lot of fun. I’m not sure how long these sorts of stories are remembered over long periods of time, though, they may be brief touchstones that garner a moment of attention and nothing more.

 

If you haven’t already, it’s well worth asking yourself what the lesson behind your own stories is meant to be. Whether it is a lesson taught by example or principle, whether in a realistic setting or a fantastic one, whether with lifelike characters or caricatures. All combinations of these are valid options, what matters is that whichever configuration you choose you do so intentionally.

Here in the United States of America we have a narrative type called “tall tales” which blends the two styles in an interesting way. These are stories of individuals that are said to have lived among ordinary people in an ordinary setting, but that performed superhuman feats when needed. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and more are larger-than-life characters that were too big for the reality they were cast in.

Previously I’ve written a lifelike-example in the form of I Hated You, Jimmy and also a fantasy-principle with The Anther-Child. This Thursday, though, I’d like to try my hand at a story that straddles the two extremes in the same way as one of these American “tall tales.” Come back then to see how it goes!

An Honest Critique

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On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.

The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.

No Sideplots)

The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.

Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.

But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.

I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.

Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.

In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.

The Duel)

But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.

Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.

Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.

In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.

Easier to Critique Than Write)

As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?

I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.

Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.

And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Distracting Goodness

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Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!

Black and White

silhouette of grass under white sky
Photo by João Jesus on Pexels.com

On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.