It’s a Long Way Home

white and brown wooden house near calm body of water under cumulus clouds
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Empty Halls)

They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!

True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.

There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.

Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.

Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.

Loss. And regret.

These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.

From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.

 

Never Hopeless)

Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.

Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.

Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.

That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.

In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.

There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.

 

The Endless Pursuit)

And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.

That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.

So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.

There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.

It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.

But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.

Come back on Thursday to see how his story progresses, and until then, happy trails!

Journeys and Detours

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The Journeyman’s Questions)

When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.

Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.

It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.

Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?

 

Questions Into Stories)

And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.

Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch.

Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.

Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.

This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.

Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.

Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.

 

Less Direct Routes)

The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.

But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.

For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.

Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.

In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.

That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.

In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.

When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.

Stop, You Fool!

red and yellow stop sticker
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In a previous post I discussed the matter of giving the reader and the main character different amounts of information. In most stories the reader and main character share the exact same knowledge base, and have roughly the same intelligence as one another. This creates a very comfortable sync, and reduces the friction in adopting a fictional perspective.

 

Creating Suspense)

But sometimes you do not want your story to be comfortable, sometimes you want the reader to feel friction. An excellent way to accomplish this is by providing the audience with more information than the main character.

This is done very cleverly in Wait Until Dark. In this suspenseful thriller, three criminals are trying to trick an innocent, blind lady into giving them a doll that has been stuffed with cocaine. They attempt this by all manner of manipulation, each of them posing as a different character in a wildly convoluted facade.  One of them plays the part of a sympathetic friend, another as a police detective who accuses her husband of infidelity, and the third as an unhinged menace that threatens her with violence. They work at her from each side, and though she is clever she literally cannot see through all of their deceit.

Most notable is a scene where she discovers the missing doll and excitedly calls the “sympathetic friend,” telling him that she has found it and needs him to come over straight away to help her dispose of it. Of course, the audience already knows that he is one of the villains, and so we cringe and say “No, don’t call him! You’re setting yourself up!” It’s not that she’s foolish, it’s just that she’s ignorant while we are not.

In Dial M For Murder the audience knows from the outset who the real murderer is, and therefore watches in agony as all the evidence instead condemns an innocent woman. Rope also reveals its secrets right from the outset, so that the audience feels the constant suspense of an undiscovered body laying just out of sight. In Psycho we watch in dread anticipation as the detective enters the house that we already know houses a lunatic killer.

 

Poor, Naive Fools)

It is not always necessary to divide the information given to the audience and the main character, though. Another approach is for the main character to be naive, and therefore incapable of processing their situation as clearly as the audience will. This was my approach on Thursday. Here a naive toy drummer is taken advantage of by some unsavory types. That he is being taken advantage of is painfully obvious, but he never clues in on it. We’ll have to cut him some slack, though, in the story he literally was born just yesterday!

And so the audience cringes as he willfully puts his faith in the wrong people. Each step that he thinks is getting him closer to his goal, is actually taking him farther away.

I’ll be honest, it was hard for me to write these sequences. Just like the audience, my gut desire is for him to see through the deception and do the right thing. In fact when I first started writing stories in my teenage years that was exactly what happened. The heroes did the first exact right thing, then the next exact right thing, and then the next and the next, and then they had won and the story was over.

And you know what? They were very boring stories. And so while I wish the drummer could be a bit brighter, he can’t be. He has to be duped and go to where the story needs him to go.

At least he won’t be alone in his follies, though. Along the way he’ll have the company of all the many other literary characters who have been fooled by cunning villains. Consider, for example, Disney’s film depiction of Pinocchio, which directly inspired this tale of my little drummer.

In this movie Pinocchio is also a newly fashioned toy, and also one that lacks any street smarts whatsoever. A cat and fox convince him to leave school in search of fun. A puppet master promises him fame and wealth, while really only exploiting Pinocchio. Later Pinocchio falls in with a gang of lawless boys, and nearly loses his own humanity as a result. And once again, through the entire film, the audience knows that Pinocchio is making the wrong choices, but he simply doesn’t have the experience to recognize it himself.

 

The Meta-Narrative)

Not all naivete is so dour, though. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Huckleberry Finn. This, too, is a young and uneducated boy, one who does not understand the deeper things that the reader does. A great moment in his story comes when he considers the plight of his friend Jim, who is a runaway slave trying to gain his freedom. Finn has grown up in the South, and has been taught that it is not only illegal to help a runaway slave, it is immoral. Though it causes him great consternation, Huckleberry Finn ultimately resolves to help his friend, even though he believes it will damn him to hell to do so.

Of course Mark Twain intends for the audience to see the matter quite differently. Readers will understand that Huckleberry Finn is actually doing a good and honest thing, and that he is cleansing his soul, rather than dirtying it.

Stories that rely on these different levels of understanding between reader and character provide two narratives at once. First there is the plain and simple story of the character: Pinocchio faces great adversity in his quest to become a real boy, Huckleberry Finn has grave misgivings, but still helps his friend. But beyond this there is also a meta-examination of the experience that is occurring. The author and the audience are having a conversation on the subject matter even as it is happening.

Is a child such as Pinocchio guilty, if all his follies are made in ignorance? Does he deserve to be punished for wrong if he does not know it is wrong? Whether deserved or not, the world does punish the gullible. So what dangers await our children if they are left so uneducated and naive?

How can a social climate be used to make those like Huckleberry Finn cross good for bad, and bad for good? Do we rely too much on arguments and laws and reasons, when really all we ought to do is follow our own conscience?

A common theme of these meta-narratives is that our society has corrupted the innocent. We ought to be able to live entirely naive and trusting, and not be taken advantage for it. We ought to be able to live purely from our conscience, and not be conflicted for so doing. Maybe that isn’t how life is, but it is how it should be.

In Toymaker I have endeavored to weave both of these themes into the story. In Thursday’s post we saw our innocent drummer tricked by other devious characters, and we feel that he shouldn’t have been. We saw his conscience trying to warn him about their wiles, but he was compelled to sideline it, and he shouldn’t have. So no, he shouldn’t be in this situation, but he is, and now he will have to deal with it. And all these messages and all the tension are able to come through by simply letting the audience understand more than the character does.

In my next post we’ll see our naive fool beginning to see through his follies. He’ll start to recognize that there are those that are trustworthy and those that are not. He’ll even find a new friend to help him live more shrewdly. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes.

 

 

 

Judge Me, and Quickly

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We have a common saying: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Like all of our colloquialisms, we hardly ever apply it to the situation that it describes. Perhaps we really should look deeper than the jacket cover when selecting a novel from the library, but more often we use this expression to say “don’t judge another person by the way that they look.”

That’s a worthy notion, but it is ironic that we use this saying to express it, because the saying itself is totally false! Within the actual literary world we are expected and encouraged to judge every character just by how they are described.

 

The Economy of Words)

Writers are frequently told to say what they need to say in as few words as possible. There is a scene in the film A River Runs Through It, in which a young boy is taught how to write by his father. He repeatedly brings his essay for review, and is repeatedly told to write it again in half as many words.

Sometimes it is pleasant to indulge in a beautifully detailed bit of scenery, but as a general rule, the longer you take to say something in your story, the less words you now have to tell the rest of it. One trick that greatly helps reduce one’s word count is to make each word work harder, i.e. to make it stand for more than one thing.

Consider this description of a character:

He wore a long cloak, hat, and gloves, each of them quite stiff and uncomfortable. He was known abroad for his cold and calculating manner.

That’s already pretty economical, but let’s see if we can’t get all of our points across more succinctly. We will do so by describing his clothing and manner in the same moment.

His cloak, hat, and gloves were black and stiff, dark mirrors of his soul.

Nearly half as long. In fact we can probably drop the last statement and only describe the clothes. Readers already know to extrapolate the manners of the man from the adjectives which surround him.

 

Judge By Its Cover)

Which brings us back to the original claim. An author keeps their story concise by inviting the reader to judge things strictly by their appearance. Darth Vader walks in clothed in black, with a helmet that looks like a skull. Meanwhile Luke Skywalker is clothed in white, sandy haired, and youthful. Sauron is a single, giant eye wreathed in flame. Frodo is a “stout fellow with red cheeks, taller than some, and fairer than most, with a cleft chin, a bright eye, and a perky personality.” Is there any question how you are supposed to feel about each of these characters?

But this is not only for characters, either, it applies to settings as well. Consider this description of the approach to Julian’s House, in the book of the same name:

Inside the gate a silence falls. Leaves stir and are still. At the foot of the porch steps the silence deepens, wrapped around with the fragrance of the shallow pink roses that twine the uprights and shadow the wide boards with their leaves. And
yet it is more than a silence…

Is it even necessary to mention that this house is haunted? We already know it from the quality of the adjectives being used. There is some very careful word choice going on here, which if slightly altered, would change the tone entirely. For example, consider the mentioning of “shallow pink roses.” Had the author, Judith Hawkes, used the phrase “bright pink roses” we would probably get a feeling of gaiety and happiness. But by using that word “shallow” we instead have a sense of somber beauty, something has faded and moments have been lost.

In fact, even if an author isn’t striving for succinctness, they still need to choose descriptive terms that fit the image for their characters and scenes. A Christmas Carol tells us straight-ahead that Scrooge is a mean, tight-fisted, old man, but then reinforces that fact with how it describes his appearance:

The cold within him froze his old features…shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait…and [he] spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

And later on the effect is still further strengthened in the dialogue. Note how his phrases are set apart:

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.
“Nephew!” returned the uncle, sternly.

Nephew Fred is pleading and good-natured. Uncle Scrooge is stern and returns abruptly. In a previous post we talked about the difference between showing and telling. You can tell the audience that a character is good or bad or crazy, but you better back it up by showing them that quality as well. Carefully selecting descriptive terms that reinforce these ideas is one way of doing just that. It lets the reader feel the reality of their personality.

 

Keep the Unspoken Law)

This is a powerful tool for an author, but it has to be wielded appropriately. If Charles Dickens had told the audience that Scrooge was a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” but then proceeded to describe his appearance as “red-cheeked, pleasantly fat, and fair-skinned,” something would have felt amiss. All the more so if he then spoke with little fits of giggles and eye-winks.

Yes, of course, this goes against the conventional wisdom of “don’t judge a book by a cover,” but that is advice for real life, not fiction. In real life some of the worst crimes are committed by the most handsome, most sincere looking people, but in a story if someone looks good, they are good and if they look bad, they are bad.

A villain might have a vain or prideful beauty, but never a wholesome warmth. They might have eyes that hypnotize and bewitch, but never a look of kindness.

You can try to defy these rules if you wish, but you run the risk of confusing and frustrating your readers. Encouraging your reader to use this shorthand of judging a character by their description is not a bad thing, it allows you to communicate more accurately, but also more succinctly.

 

Last week I made use of these principles when I introduced a teddy bear, describing him as somewhat deflated and stooped. He spoke somberly and cynically, and immediately suggested to the heroes that they should stray from their path. With that sort of personality-signalling, I do not believe it surprised any reader when this bear kidnapped one of the main characters out of pure spite. We were already quite sure he was up to no good, and it is only fitting now to see our suspicions justified.

This next Thursday I will continue that story, and in it our main hero will meet several more characters, all of which will be wearing their hearts directly on their sleeves. Even if he can’t see through their lies, the audience will have no trouble doing so. Come back then to see how it turns out.

As Long as You’ll Clean up After It

close up photography of adult golden retriever
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Doing Your Duty)

I never had a dog growing up. I always wanted one, but the answer was always no. I tried telling my dad that he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding or cleaning up after it, I would be entirely responsible for all of that stuff. He knew, better than I, that that was not the way these sorts of things go.

Now I have a home and family of my own, and we have a cat. What I did not understand as a child was that because I am a provider in my home, and chose to bring the cat into it, I am therefore obligated to him. Even if my own son was old enough to do all of the cat’s chores, I would still feel emotionally responsible.

I am also obligated to the fish that we have. I am obligated to the woman I asked to be my wife, to the son we are raising, and to the baby daughter that we are expecting this winter.

Each one of these responsibilities came about by some sort of creative or additive act. I made, purchased, or requested all of these connections and added them to my life on-by-one. And because I chose to add these to my life, I have a duty to them.

Having that sense of duty matters to me. There are some traditions of “masculinity” that I do not hold with, but one that I think is good is the idea that a real man takes care of his own. A man chooses his responsibilities, and then he commits himself to them. He does not take on dependents lightly, he does so with full intent to provide.

A mature, responsible adult therefore holds to the things that matter and lets go of the things that get in the way. So much of adulthood is simply learning how to divide between these two, and one that manages this balancing act will lead a fulfilling and blameless life…but also one that doesn’t make for a good story!

 

Conflicting Obligations)

Narratives are about tension and drama. Compelling stories have points where the decision between right and wrong is not so straightforward, situations where there are pros and cons to each side and compromises have to be made.

One of my favorite animated films is Wreck-It Ralph, in which the main character rejects his role as a video game villain and goes in quest of a hero’s reward. Along the way he befriends a young girl who is an outcast in her own game. Her dream is to live as a racer, and he helps her to build a car that can compete in an upcoming race.

And then, at that critical point, he is made aware of a terrible conundrum. This young girl has a glitch, and if she performs in the race and players see her glitching, the game might be unplugged and she will die.

Through their adventures Ralph has come to feel responsible for this young girl. Part of that responsibility is to her happiness. To that end, he has built her this racecar. But also he is responsible for her safety, and right now her happiness seems to be putting that safety in jeopardy. He tries to reason with her, to tell her that she shouldn’t race. She rejects that notion. So what does he do? He breaks her car into pieces. He is both the good guy protecting her and the bad guy crushing her dreams.

That is great drama and excellent storytelling! Not only that, it authentically captures the real-life difficulty of making the right choice “in the moment.” When we reflect on our choices, hindsight often makes very clear to us which were right and which were wrong. When making those choices in the moment, though, things seemed much less black-and-white.

 

Making Up For Mistakes)

This means that sometimes we will make a choice that seemed right in the moment, but later we learned was not. One of the most difficult things we have to do in life is admit we were wrong, work backwards, and make an opposite choice to undo our mistake. Because that is something else we are responsible for: what decisions we have already made.

Ralph faced this exact same conundrum. He came to realize that he had been fed some misinformation, and that leads him to make amends with the little girl he broke the heart of.

Victor Frankenstein was another character who had to face responsibility for his actions. In his novel he creates a new life, and is therefore responsible for the individual he has made. But he finds that the creation is hideous, and full of violent intent. The creature tries to coerce him into providing a mate, but Frankenstein refuses, unwilling to be responsible for the propagation of this monstrous species.

Ultimately Frankenstein seeks to destroy his creation, so that he may at last have rest from his responsibilities. Instead he dies in the effort, and so his rest is discontented. He is filled with the disappointment of having failed his duty. That is the last great tragedy of his life.

Last weeks’ story was based around this same idea of a father trying to bring a premature closure to his responsibilities. I also ended it in a place of grim dissatisfaction, because it wouldn’t feel right to have an easy fix to an inherently complex problem.

 

The Responsibility of Power)

The last type of responsibility I wish to examine is that of a character who comes into unexpected power. There are several stories that ask what would happen if a person suddenly gained tremendous strength or influence, and in the moment had to decide what responsibilities were inherent in that? Aladdin uncovers a powerful genie, but has to learn to use it wisely, rather than just satisfy his selfish desires. Edmond Dantès finds great riches, and is empowered to ruin the men who wronged him. To do so, though, will break his responsibilities of love and fidelity to the woman that he loved. Is he to live out his vengeance and lose his soul, or remain true to his core and swallow a defeat?

I would like to craft  a story that further examines these themes of responsibility, and particularly that of the responsibility inherent in great power. At first the main character will be unaware of his tremendous capabilities, during which time he will bind himself to only the common sort of responsibilities: loyalty and protection for another. Come on Thursday to see the forging of those bonds, and then later in the story we will examine how those ties are affected when he discovers his greater nature!

Not Sure How to Feel About This

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Incomplete Victories)

Last week I concluded a short piece with a bittersweet moment. In it the hero sacrificed his life, but not even to defeat the villain. In fact, the villain was left even more empowered than ever before. The hero did, however, manage to free a soul that had been enslaved to the villain, and so there was the triumph of something right having been done, though at the cost of the world becoming darker as a direct result.

Usually that isn’t how these sorts of stories end. Usually the heroic sacrifice is supposed to achieve a total victory, not a partial one. Therefore my ending was partially fulfilling, but I hope it was also partially disappointing. The purpose of the story was to offer a challenge to the reader. I want them to have to decide whether the saving of that one soul is therefore a “good enough” ending. How much value do they put in that success? Enough to accept some defeat along with it?

This idea of challenging the viewer with a partially-satisfying/partially-subversive ending is not a new idea. Consider the classic film Spartacus, in which we follow a Gladiator as he raises a ragtag army and uses them to challenge the oppressive rule of Rome.

We have come to expect a story like this to end with triumphant liberation, but that is not what happens here. Ultimately Spartacus and all of his men are killed, and the tyranny of Rome will continue for a long while yet. Even so, there is still the fact that these men died as free men, and Spartacus’s own wife and child escape to a brighter future. Spartacus therefore won some things, if not all. Is that enough?

 

Is This Still Good?)

Of course, Spartacus and my last story are asking this question with an implied answer. The audience is intended to feel a little taken aback, but then to affirm “yes, accomplishing even a partial victory is a worthy cause.”

These stories remind us that sometimes change is procedural, rather than revolutionary. They help us realize that following one’s morals can come at quite the cost. The reader hesitates because they are unsure if they have the stomach for a somewhat hollow victory, but not because they question that it is the right thing.

These stories, then, do not really provide a moral dilemma. There are stories that do, of course, ones in which the audience is meant to come out on different sides of the question being posed. These sorts of tales still make use of mixed moments, ones where the audience experiences both victory and defeat. The difference in how they employ these is subtle, but significant.

Consider the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In this comic book tale Batman is locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis the Joker, and he finds himself taking more and more extreme measures just to keep up. It then concludes with another one of these mixed endings. The Joker has been defeated, but the woman Batman loved has died, the man he considered a paragon of truth has gone dark, he has violated the privacy of innocent citizens, and he is now lying to them to maintain a facade.

Again, the audience is being asked was it all worth it, but it intends for some of us to say yes, and others to say no. Even among those that say no, Batman went too far, there will be further division about when and where he crossed that particular line.

In many ways the Dark Knight reflects the story beats of the classic Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. Here again our main character, Captain Ahab, is intent upon defeating his nemesis, the titular whale. Ahab, too, goes to greater and greater lengths, leaving ruin and death in the wake of his monomaniacal campaign against the whale.

The main difference is that Moby Dick does not end with any sort of partial victory, though. The tragic destruction of the Pequod and all its sailors, save one, has no bright side to balance it out. The audience is not split on the question of whether Ahab pursued Moby Dick for too long, only as to where that moment of being “too long” was.

 

The Difference)

So what makes stories like Moby Dick and The Dark Knight so divisive, while Shade and Spartacus are only ponderous? What line is crossed in one set of stories and not in the others?

Well, the difference is in the characters themselves. In Shade the main character, Gallan, has an incomplete victory in the world around him, but he has a pure victory within. He remains true to his commitments, and his soul remains intact in a shattered world. Spartacus’s internal victory is even more pronounced. He progresses from indifferent and cynical slave to a passionate and inspiring hero.

In each of these stories the audience is meant to conclude that the outcomes are good, because the characters themselves are good at those conclusions.

In The Dark Knight Batman accomplishes his means, but it is clear that he is discontent with the actions he took to do so. He feels he did what he had to, but he is haunted by the corruption of his soul. In Moby Dick, Ahab doesn’t exactly begin as a saint, but he ends up far more guilty than how he started. At the outset he has committed his personal life to chasing down his quarry, but by the end he willingly dooms the lives of his entire crew as well.

One of our greatest fears is the loss of our own souls. We want to make it through life successful and happy, but also to feel that we did not comprise ourselves along the way. Some stories reaffirm our commitment to do what is right, even if it is a partial victory, by showing the soul being preserved or improved. Other stories, however, can make us doubt our convictions by showing us an overzealous soul becoming fractured.

 

This is a very subtle, but very important lesson for how to steer your audience into self-examination. If the ending of your story isn’t challenging them in the direction that you intended, perhaps it is worth considering whether this principle has gotten crossed. In the meantime, I would like to explore the idea further with my next short story. Last week we had a hero that maintained his soul through a difficult decision, this time I want to do the opposite. I will create a character that does what he feels he has to do, even though it condemns him to do so. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Let Me Explain This to You

man in suit jacket standing beside projector screen
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

Telling vs Evoking)

It is interesting that we so often use phrases like “let me tell you a story.” Once upon a time people did exactly this, but today we try for something different. Today most writers want to “evoke” a story instead.

It wasn’t always this way. When we look at fairy tales, Greek tragedies, and myths of old, we find very little evoking. These stories were told straight ahead: this is what happened first, and then this, and then this, and so on until the end. We get only a little explanation of what characters are thinking or feeling, and when we do it is a very stale statement like “he was scared.”

The audience that hears these stories understand all that occurs, they have been told the events plainly, but they usually do not feel very much from the story. This defines the difference between telling and evoking.

Evoking became more prominent as the craft of story-writing evolved. Somewhere along the way authors learned to use their prose to elicit intense emotions from their audience. Consider this brief passage from the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Dickens might have “told” his reader that it was dark and dreary, but instead he used flowery descriptions to better make the reader “feel” the bleakness directly. Generally we consider this “feeling” approach to be better, although there are pros and cons to both it and straight-ahead telling.

By just telling you something I can use a minimum of words to communicate a great deal. In a single sentence I can convey a broader scene. By evoking something I generally have to be a good deal more wordy. In fact it is very easy for me to go overboard and become too long-winded! But while my sentences might not be as broad, they will run deeper. Many authors will therefore combine the two, giving the general lay of the land in a few expository sentences, and then focusing on specific details with carefully chosen adjective and adverbs.

 

Active vs Inactive)

Another difference between telling and evoking is whether the audience is actively experiencing an event, or only hearing about it secondhand. Exposition is where someone tells you what happened. Plot is where you see it unfold directly.

Almost the whole of my last story post was exposition. The main character was at a critical juncture, the pivotal moment where he had to commit to his single, greatest deed. Now because I decided to write this short piece as if it were in the middle of a larger narrative, this main character was making his decision based off of facts that the reader had never seen. I therefore had to explain these things, and that was how the exposition came to be.

One might feel that the obvious solution would be to not try telling stories in the middle, if the reader had been experiencing all of these accounts as they happened then they wouldn’t need to be told about them secondhand later. This is true, although even a story that seems to begin in the beginning will still have some of its hooks in the past. Every story is in media res, with past events that will have to be summarized to some degree.

Another consideration is that even if the reader had experienced all of these moments, they might still need a quick recap to explain how each moment is weighing in my main character’s penultimate decision. They would need to be able to follow his train of thought to understand his behavior, otherwise his choices would appear to be random.

So once again, active plot is ideal for putting the reader in the experience and giving them information firsthand. But there is still a place for exposition when it comes to briefly going over broader details, and also to point out the significance of previous events when linked together.

 

So Do You Show Or Tell?)

All of which is to say that both showing and telling have their place. Of the two, telling is easier, and as such we tend to fall into it by default. This is why novice writers have to be coached to step out of that comfort zone and embrace more evocative methods. It is still perfectly valid to tell someone that they need to “show more” in their story and “tell less.”

But when we say to “tell less,” we do not mean “do not tell at all.” Not all passages should be evoked. Sometimes an event just needs to happen, and without fanfare. In those situations a writer needs to be practiced enough to tell the events succinctly and clearly and then move on to the showing.

Personally I found real value in writing the second section of Shade. It was a good exercise for me to see how to approach exposition when it is necessary, and I am decently pleased with the results of it.

The next section will be much more evocative, though. It will be the conclusion of Shade, and I absolutely want the reader to feel that ending, not just hear about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out, I’ll see you then!