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.
Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.
And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.
And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.
And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.
And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.
He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.
After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.
And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.
“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.
“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”
“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”
“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”
“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”
“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”
“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”
“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”
“I’d rather die thinking about her.”
The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”
“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”
“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”
And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.
“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.
“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”
“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”
“Our freedom for what?”
“You know. To leave.”
“What? I can’t leave?”
“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”
“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”
“Why do you stand there then?”
“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”
The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”
“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”
The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”
“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”
The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”
The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.
“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”
“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”
“You would trust me with them?”
“Yes. You promised.”
And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.
A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!
“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.
“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”
Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.
And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.
“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.
“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”
“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”
“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.
“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”
“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”
“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.
“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”
“Of course I do,” the knight said.
And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.
The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.
Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.
After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.
But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.
This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.
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.
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.
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.
A terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.
He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.
“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”
“No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”
“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”
“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”
The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.
“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.
“Yes, through it towards the motel.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”
Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.
“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.
What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.
As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.
“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”
“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”
Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.
“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”
“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”
“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”
“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.
“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”
“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”
“The dancer was?”
“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”
The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.
“Where is she? Take me to her!”
“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”
“Yes. Have you got any?”
“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”
The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.
“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.
“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.
“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.
“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”
“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”
They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.
“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.
“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.
“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”
Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”
“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.
“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.
“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.
“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”
“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.
“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”
“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”
“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”
“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.
“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.
“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”
“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”
“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”
“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”
The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.
“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”
“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”
“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”
“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”
“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”
The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.
It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.
The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!
He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.
Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.
And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.
“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.
If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!
The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.
That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.
There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!
The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.
“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”
And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.
Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.
I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.
The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.
Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.
Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank droneslazily, the foreman snaps.
Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.
I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
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.
OCTOBER STATS Days Writing: 20
New Words: 2,671
New Chapters: 1
Total Word-count: 16,533
Total Chapters: 5
Last month I finished correcting my outline, which finally allows me to focus on advancing my first draft. As such, I am going to start these monthly updates with some statistics. I will report how many words and chapters I have added to the draft, and then what the totals for the entire draft are.
Writing 2,671 is quite low for me, I average about 475 words per day. The reason I only wrote that many was because I decided it would help switch back into my draft-writing context by reading through and polishing all four chapters of my previous work. I ended up making some extensive rewrites of those passages, which word-count I did not take the time to record. This process definitely did help me get back into the draft-writing mindset, and those 2,671 words came out pretty smoothly during the last week of the month.
There seem to be two philosophies for how one should write their novel. One is to write everything out from start to finish, and only then go back to the beginning and smooth the entire thing over. The other approach is to draft as you go, writing one chapter, smoothing it out, and only continuing to the next chapter when the first one feels right. There are pros and cons to each, but I’ve decided to take the latter approach. It will slow me down for finishing this first draft, but it will hopefully result in that draft being closer to a publishable quality.
My goal for October was to write for 22 days, I ended up with 20. Not quite on the mark, but not terrible. In November my family is taking a vacation, and so my writing will be a bit limited. I am going to shoot for 19 days in all, though I might only hit 18. I’m hoping to add about 7,500 words in that time. Come back on December 1st to see how it all turns out.
No toy could remember the moment of its creation, because at the moment of creation it had no awareness at all. It just meandered about, mindlessly performing its set task and entirely oblivious to all. Individuality only came in degrees, a tiny bit at a time.
Day-by-day a toy would gain a vague awareness that there was a constant Rump-a-dum-dum around it. Then it would gain a vague awareness that it was being vaguely aware!
Day-by-day the toy would start to piece together that those Rump-a-dum-dum noises seemed to be synchronized with the little batons that it saw beating against a drum. Then it would piece together that those were its batons, and that it was moving them with its hands, to play its drum.
Day-by-day the toy would begin to wonder why it was playing that drum. And then it would stop. And then the world would sound so empty and strange without the sound that it would start playing again. But it would play it a little differently now. Rump-a-dum-dum-dum! Rump-a-rump-dum!
Now, at last, it would be an individual being, and while wandering about it would start to recognize that there were other beings that were not itself. Some of them would smile knowingly and wink at it and ask if it had “come to itself yet,” which the toy wouldn’t understand the meaning of.
Some of the other toys, though, would be entirely disconnected from their surroundings, like a ballerina that was glassy-eyed and monotonously twirling on top of her box without a single step of variation. And the drummer would see how that little ballerina-on-a-music-box was day-by-day starting to come to herself and look back at him with a bemused wonder. Then the drummer would understand what it meant to “come to oneself” and realized, almost with horror, that once it had been so oblivious itself!
And so the drummer would go back to those that had smiled and winked and would tell them that yes, it had come to itself, and now it was very much confused. Then they would tell him it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, it happened to them all. Then they would tell him that he probably ought to follow this road over here, and presently it would bring him to a great and important city. Once there he could start to learn about the real world.
And a toy, such as this drummer, would thank them, but want to know why he hadn’t always been aware, and why he was now, and where did he come from to begin with?
“No one really knows,” the smiling Bishop might say.
“Even when we know how to know, we still don’t know where we came from,” the winking Knight added.
“We see you new toys waking up, but we don’t actually see any of you get made, now do we?” the questioning Rook offers. “Just one moment there’s an empty pond over there, then you turn your back, and when you look again there’s this rubber duck swimming through it completely oblivious. And it’s always behind your back like that. No matter how you try to see it, new toys always come in secret.”
“Oh how curious,” the little drummer says. “But how do you–”
“To the city,” the stern King repeats. “That is the place for you.”
“They’ll give me the answers there?”
“They might give you an answer or two…but mostly more questions, and really you’d better get used to that in this world. So the sooner you get there and the sooner you get used to it the better, so you’d better get going now!”
And with that a drummer would figure he had better start down that road!
It wasn’t a very straight road, indeed it incessantly curved back-and-forth in a whimsical sort of way. A road meant for play, rather than for function.
And this proved quite the challenge for the drummer. For all his short life he had always marched in straight lines. Indeed with such straight legs and no knees, what else could be expected of him? Thus as he approached the first turn he walked straight into it, then straight through it, then straight off of it and straight into the dirt going the completely wrong direction.
He came to an immediate stop and stared about, trying to understand what was going on. He decided that he ought to try again, and so took another step, still in the wrong direction!
Once more the drummer halted, and he was really getting quite anxious now! He did not know how to move back to the path except for by trying to walk again, but each of his tries seemed to be carrying him only farther away. He couldn’t help but worry whether by trying so hard to return to the road he wouldn’t just wander away from it forever.
And so he waited for a good deal, but nothing useful came from that either, and so he decided he really ought to try just one more time. He thought really hard about going the right way, looked down to his foot, and watched as it continued straight forward in sheer defiance!
And so the drummer paused again and wondered a bit about how exactly one was supposed to go the right way, which meant that he was still pausing and wondering when another toy happened to come her way down the same road.
It was the dancer he had seen from before, the one that had been unaware of her own existence. She went down the road spinning and spinning, which meant of course that she had no trouble with the turns whatsoever.
“Oh,” she exclaimed when she saw the drummer standing off the road a few inches from her. “Are we supposed to leave the road here?”
“I–no, I don’t think so. I just can’t seem to turn properly.” The drummer was very ashamed.
“Oh, are you going to stay here forever then?”
“I just might have to.”
“Wait, I have an idea…” and she spun over next to him, looped her arm around his, and twirled him right back onto the road.
“How did you do that?!” he asked in amazement.
“It’s just what I do. Now can you continue on your way?”
“Well…I can because the road is straight right here. But I see another turn waiting up ahead, and once I get to it I’ll be right back in the same sort of trouble again I suspect.”
“No worries there. I’ll just stick beside you and help you around that turn as well.”
“And the next?”
“And the next and the next and the next.”
Well that was certainly a relief! So the drummer and the dancer continued down the road together. They would still fumble from time to time, such as when the drummer wouldn’t come to a complete stop before walking off a curve in the road, or when the dancer would spin too far and end up pointing back the way they came; but now at least they fumbled together, and somehow that made it better. And both of them would straighten the other out and then they would continue onward together.
“This is quite a long time we’ve been on this road, isn’t it?” the dancer asked after a long time being on the road.
“Yes…but maybe it’s that way with every road. Really I’m not sure myself, I’ve never been much of an expert on them.”
“Sir, I’ve been wondering, what is that you’re holding in your hands?”
“These are my batons, and I use them to play my drum. See, like this.” Rump-a-rump-rump-rump! Rump-a-dum-a-dum-dum!
“Oh!” the dancer cried out, and her spinning changed to matched his beat. And as he saw her change her spinning he changed the way he was drumming. So now her dancing moved his drumming, and his drumming moved her dancing. It was a little disorienting at first, but then they settled into a joint cadence.
Just then they came upon the next turn, and a wonderful thing occurred. The drummer found that so long as he beat his instrument in time to the dancer’s spinning he could now make the turn on his own. And the dancer found that as she matched her spinning to his drumming, she could straighten back out anytime that she turned too far. And so they pulled and pushed with their little music and dance, and beat their way much more easily down the path.
Such good time they were making now, that soon they were catching up on another toy, one that had been sent on his journey long before either of them.
It was a puffy teddy bear, who didn’t have quite enough stuffing to stand up straight. As such he trundled along in a constant stoop, picking out his path carefully and methodically. As the two friends came alongside of him the drummer slowed his beat so that they could match pace with the bear.
“Hello there!” the dancer called out joyfully.
The bear turned his head to see them, which in turn rotated almost half his entire body. “Oh, hello,” he said slowly. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Are you off to the city as well?” the drummer asked.
“Well, you know, I was. But I’ve been travelling down this road for such a very long time and I still haven’t seen it. I’m beginning to wonder if the city doesn’t exist.”
The drummer and the dancer both found that a very confusing idea.
“But how could we have been told to go to a place that doesn’t exist?” the drummer asked.
“I don’t know,” the bear sighed. “It was just a thought that occurred to me while I was walking along my way. Or perhaps it did exist once, but it doesn’t anymore. Or maybe it isn’t really worth going to anyway. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can think of so many reasons why it isn’t a good idea to stay on this road anymore.”
“Hmm” the dancer pondered.
“And if I can think of so many possible reasons for why I shouldn’t keep going to the city, then surely one or two of them must actually be true. Wouldn’t you think?”
“Hmm” the drummer thought. “But if you don’t go to the city…then where will you go?”
“I thought I would try at this town along the way.”
The drummer and the dancer looked in the direction that the bear pointed, and for the first time noticed that they were nearing a group of buildings on the wayside. First came a building of brick, quite tall and filled with windows on every level. From those windows came quite the tumult of noise, for the tenets of the place were enjoying all manner of raucous songs and games. There was the clinking of bottles, rough laughter, instruments playing out of sync, various shouts for attention, and even the occasional thunderous crash.
Those crashes in particular shook the entire building, for it had not been built very well. Each of its row had a stray hole here and there, and too many of those holes were on the same side, and when the building settled it had decided to lean in that one direction.
Pressed right up against the brick apartments was another building of rough granite. It was as if the second building had been hastily thrown up for the express purpose of catching the first. As such it had not been made very well, either, and had inherited its progenitor’s leaning tendencies. So it rested right up against a third building of wood.
And so it continued, one building tipping onto the next, over and over, until at last they ended in a cluster of little, clay huts. There was a fresh sign out in front of the huts and it read New Vacancies: Cheap!
“Well!” the dancer said in shock. “I don’t know that I care to stay at a place such as this!”
“Why not?” the bear frowned. “I think it sounds like fun.”
“I think I like our fun better,” the drummer said to the dancer and she firmly nodded.
And that made the bear feel a bit upset. Because he hadn’t had any companion to give him fun of any sort during his long slog down the road. Indeed his walk had been so dreary and so lonely that he was quite content to take up residence here and never worry about the fabled city at the end of the road ever again.
But now he felt that this drummer and this dancer were snubbing him, and would probably laugh at his expense after they had parted ways. That made him really quiet mad, so he reached out, grabbed the dancer roughly, and rushed off with her shouting “Oh don’t be such a snob! Give it a try, I’ll bet you like it!”
“Oh dear!” the dancer cried, then looked earnestly to the drummer over the teddy bear’s shoulder. “Help me! Please help me!”
A horrible terror gripped the drummer: a sense of loss that he had never felt before. He fought down the despair, though, and beat out a chasing rhythm on his drum. His legs sprang into action, carrying him quickly towards the bear. He had almost caught up with him when the bear made a sudden turn towards the brick building.
“Oh dear,” the drummer said, trying to pound out a cadence that would turn him. It was tough to do, more than he had anticipated. He had come to rely on the dancer’s touch to do these things, and his swivels were much more erratic now. Still, after a few over-corrections he got mostly in the direction of the bear and began again his charge.
The bear had seen this, though, and made for great many more twists and turns, even more than had been on the road to the city. The drummer valiantly kept up the chase, but he slowly fell farther and farther behind.
“Please don’t worry,” he called out to the dancer as she was about to disappear from view behind the first building. “I will find you. I will keep coming, and I will find you. I promise!”
On Monday I wrote about how responsibilities often define the characters of a story. Each hero is responsible for something, and it is that duty that drives them to action. In the case of our drummer, he developed a bond with the dancer, and he feels responsible for her well-being. The origin of this obligation was established in a very organic way as the two of them helped each other down the path. Turn-by-turn they strengthened the notion that they depended on one another, and not only for following a road. As the story continues, his every action will be driven by that sense of duty to her.
Another aspect of this story I would like to draw attention to is in my use of the teddy bear. Though we do not become acquainted with him for very long before he commits his crime, his actions are foreshadowed by his introduction. When we first meet him I took care to describe him as a weighed down, gloomy sort of person. I was trying to get the reader to have a sense of unease about him as quickly as possible. This method of signalling a character’s personality, even before they have done or said anything of significance, is something I would like to examine in greater detail with my next post. We will see how it applied to this story and literature as a whole, after which we will pick back up with the plight of our drummer and dancer.