Opposition is a constant experience in our human lives. To make even the simplest of changes by necessity requires that we exist in one state, with our destination in another, and some form of resistance in between the two. If I wish to stand it must be that I am first in some more reclined state and then exert force against the pull of gravity. It is a simple logic that if these different states and the resistance between them did not exist, there would never any change for we would already be at our destinations.
Furthermore, it appears that this resistance which we encounter always flows more strongly in a particular direction. Specifically, it always flows against order and improvement. Tied into the very fabric of the universe seems to be a universal principle that it is always easier to make a mess than to clean one, to end a relationship than to build one, to ruin a reputation than to establish one, and to damn oneself than to find salvation.
To become the men and women we dream of demands, then, that we live a life of constant effort, always moving upstream and against the grain. Given the exhaustion we see at that end of the spectrum and our repulsion for the depravity at the other end, most of us settle on a more comfortable middle ground. In a word we choose “mediocrity,” days spent performing no great evil but also accomplishing no great good. An existence of forever living beneath our potential.
We might even try to convince ourselves that this is as good as life ever gets. Heroes are a fantasy, we say, and effort would only lead to broken dreams. The world is too big and too evil, and trying to stand against that storm will only get you snapped like a dry reed in the wind.
It is at times like these that stories, true stories, provide an all-important lesson on the power of endurance more than strength, of sacrifice more than fortification, of perseverance more than speed. Consider the situation under which Gandhi chose to defy the British rule in his homeland of India. Most of his fellow countrymen had accepted their dejected state because the British just seemed too great a force to stand against. As Gandhi swam against the current he raised no armies and fielded no battles, at least not in the military sense. But he did refuse to obey and he did refuse to be curtailed. His victory was achieved simply by being willing to face that tide of resistance longer than the British monarchy was, a feat all the more impressive given the principle I mentioned before: that the resistance is stronger against the good.
Stories of real world change shake us out of our cushy chairs and demand we face the reality that we could be more. We all have our demons, the forces that send us scurrying back under the bed whenever we consider improving ourselves. They might be ignorance, poverty, depression, or shame. “I would like to be a better person, but to do so would mean facing the guilt for past misdeeds.”
In this way our demons hold us back, and seem to wield greater power than we possess. Even so, they can be worn down if we are simply more persistent than they. More willing to pick ourselves up after a setback. More willing to endure, to sacrifice, and to give. If we learn anything from Gandhi’s example, let it be this: you can beat a man into submission simply by standing up more times than he is willing to knock you down.
As such, I care very little for stories where the hero wins the day just by being more skilled than the enemy. If he simply shoots faster, has bigger muscles, or hits harder until he wins, then there is no relatability to me and my situations. If I could simply punch my personal flaws into submission I would have done that a long time ago.
A far more meaningful narrative example is that of Disney’s animated feature: Hercules. Here we have a protagonist who literally is the strongest all around and does indeed try to punch all of his problems into submission. Eventually, though, he is frustrated to learn that life simply will not work that way, and ultimately he gives up his physical strength to instead learn endurance of the heart. It is by this path that finally he becomes the god he dreamt to be.
Like Hercules, our personal improvement often requires sacrificing that which gives us strength and comfort: our addiction, our complacency, our facade. Growth comes by taking off the armor that doesn’t fit and facing Goliath in our true form: small, vulnerable, and weak. This deliberately stacks the deck against us and puts us in the role of the underdog.
If you want a director who is master of the underdog tale, look no further than Steven Spielberg. From his early film-making titles like Duel, to his suspenseful thrillers like Jaws, to his gripping adventures like Indiana Jones, Spielberg consistently gives us an everyman who is entirely out of his depth. For each of them their path to success is a journey of setback after setback, failure after failure, one plan crumbling after another until finally their perseverance sees them through. I finish each of these films feeling exhausted for just having been witness to such constant struggle.
Another underdog tale I appreciate is King Henry V by Shakespeare. What I like most about this is that it leaves no question as to whether the uphill battle is worth the effort. The story certainly spends its time in the trenches, setting Henry and his small band against a series of losses and facing down innumerable foes. But then, at long last, there follows the triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, the charmingly bumbling courtship of Katharine, the King of France adopting Henry as heir, and the peaceful union of two great nations.
The play speaks a great truth, one that all of us would do well to remember when facing our own uphill battles.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone laying on their deathbed and saying “I just wish that I had tried less.” In the end we never do regret our efforts, only what we were. I cannot name all of the rewards we may find by our betterment, but the first of them, the heart that has its reclaimed itself, is already more than enough for me.
At this time I would normally do a little plug for my short stories, instead I would like to take a moment to dedicate this post to a dear friend of mine who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday.
Corey Holmgren was a military chaplain, therapist, youth teacher, father, husband, and friend. He was also the mentor who initiated me into the ranks of those that fight for their best selves. He did so much to show me the complacency I had accepted, and the potential that was waiting for me. It was he, and others like him, who inspired me to wake up and improve myself, making a number of changes, including writing these regular blog posts. Corey was a part of me that I was not ready to lose.
His family was not ready to lose him either and I’m including a link to the GoFundMe that has been set up for them. As it says over there: “If you are unable to donate, please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”
Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.
“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”
“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”
“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”
“About the challenge?”
Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”
“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”
Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”
“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”
“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”
“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”
Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”
Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”
“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.
“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”
“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.
“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”
Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.
“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.
Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.
The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.
More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.
As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.
Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.
Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.
After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.
Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.
Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.
“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”
Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.
The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.
Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.
“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.
Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.
“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”
Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?
“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”
“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”
There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.
“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.
Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.
“We’re past that now.”
“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”
“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”
“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”
Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”
The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.
“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.
Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.
Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.
Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.
Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.
It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.
Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.
Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.
“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.
“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.
Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.
“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.
On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.
Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.
I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.
Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena of human behavior at work this last little while. We’ve been hiring a lot of new employees and there seems to be a pattern where you only meet the new hire’s mask on their first day, and then the actual person a few weeks later.
This is a common social pattern, of course. When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we feel endangered. Perhaps not physically endangered, but socially endangered. We wish to protect ourselves by wearing a persona that we expect to be better received. For some that persona is more loud and confident than they really feel, for others it is more quiet and reserved. I fall into that latter category. When I start a new job or move to a new residence I hardly speak at all, then, after a few weeks I start to come out of my shell, crack jokes, and share about the things that really interest me.
It’s always interesting when meeting someone for the first time to wonder who they really are, and to look forward to eventually figuring that out. You might say you should never judge a book by its cover…. Pretty smooth segue, don’t you think 😉
In literature there are all manner of first impressions and later revelations. From the very first pages the reader is making first impressions of the story and themes as a whole, and also of the individual characters as they meet each one. But sometimes these first impressions don’t bear out through the rest of the story, and that can be both a good or a bad thing. Let’s look at both aspects.
In a prior post I spoke of how a good opening can establish the tone of the narrative and also introduce the main arc that will carry the tale. But there is another aspect of a story’s opening that authors have to deal with, that of providing a hook, something that will convince the reader to forge past the first chapter all the way to the end. Opening your story with a mystery or a problem that is intriguing is how you convince the reader that your book is going to be worth their time.
The danger here, though, is that it is very easy to promise more than your story can deliver, as it is far easier to write a compelling beginning than a satisfying ending. Sadly there are many stories where strong characters, an interesting world, and a creative mechanic quickly establish an intriguing premise, but then just meander aimlessly to a weak conclusion. In this instance the story’s first chapter truly is a facade, one that looks impressive and suggests extravagant interiors, but behind is only enough lattice to make the story marketable.
I consider it poor taste to give specific examples of poorly crafted work, but I’m sure you can readily recall many such examples of this shortcoming on your own. Fortunately there are more positive examples we can consider, and one of my favorites is the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
By and large Doyle is a master of capturing intrigue at the outset of his tales and then delivering satisfaction by their close. His general template often involves a hook where Holmes is presented a baffling case, a recount of the detective’s investigation, and finally gives a clever solution that neatly answers all that had seemed impossible.
Even more impressive is that Doyle realized his formula had become expected, and so he began to alter the pattern to surprise the reader with an even better ending than anticipated. The Adventure of the Yellow Face is my favorite example of this.
And then of course there are the individual characters of the story. In most cases a story’s characters are fully understood at all times. They may have arcs and changes, but at each moment they are telling you who they honestly are at that point. The heroes really are good, and the villains really are bad, and if a villain is going to transform into someone good or a hero into someone bad, all of these changes will be signaled well in advance. Thus nothing about them really catches us by surprise.
But although most characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, there are those that refuse to show you all of their cards until later in the game. These sudden reveals can come with powerful shifts in tone and perspective, and will certainly capture the audience’s attention.
Take special note, though: even if the author may not be foreshadowing this change and it comes as a surprise, still it must not feel random. If a character simply flips their entire personality at the drop of a hat then it just becomes ludicrous.
One of the central mysteries in the biopic Capote is whether Perry Smith is the murderous terror that the press has made him out to be. All throughout the film Perry maintains that he is more innocent than has been portrayed, and speaks in such a refined and sensitive manner that we have our misgivings to his guilt. And so this continues, right up to the point that he bluntly details how he carried out every one of the monstrous acts of which he has been accused.
The reason the scene lands so well is because as shocking as the revelation is, we still fully accept this new perspective of Perry. Perhaps the label of a raging monster did not fit with the quiet demeanor he portrayed, but that of a quiet monster does. We are able to accept this more encompassing perspective of sweetness laced with menace.
In the first section of The Heart of Something Wild I introduced three main characters and established their basic identities. In the second entry I intend to have a moment of transition where some of these roles will change, and the characters’ deeper natures will suddenly be revealed.
At the same time, though, I will need to ensure that the ending of the story remains satisfying, too. I cannot simply shake reader’s expectations loose to the point that they lose their capacity to care about the outcomes. I think it will be challenging to pull off, and I’m excited to give it a try. Come back on Thursday to see what I am able to make of it!
In the middle of the African jungle, the domain of a native tribe.
Khalil paused to lean against the rock face, taking one deep breath after another.
“I’m not made for this, Paki,” he panted.
“Maybe not,” his friend grinned to him. “Thankfully you only must do this once.”
The cold air hissed sharply into Khalil’s lungs and he winced slightly at the necessary discomfort of it. For as long as he could remember he had been a fragile man, essentially a cripple. Movement was painful, stamina was low, illness was constant. The shamans had not expected him to live to adulthood, but evidently life was the one thing that remained persistent in him. What a pity it would be to lose it.
“And what if I don’t make it to the peak, Paki?” Khalil asked. “Is it so much better to die at Abasi’s hands than by the jungle?”
Paki’s smiled faded at the somber thought. He leaned on his spear and looked to Khalil intently. “If it comes to a challenge, Khalil, I will be your friend in that battle.”
Khalil nodded slowly. He was grateful, but surely Paki had already played that scenario out in his mind and discovered the obvious conclusion. Khalil would be useless in any fight, and so it would be Paki alone against Abasi and whatever companion he brought into the ring with him. Paki was a fine warrior, the finest Khalil had ever known, but even he wouldn’t stand a chance when outnumbered two-to-one.
Paki mistook Khalil’s silence for comfort, and so he grinned and stood back erect. “Come, I will help you with this next part and then you will be done with this journey.”
Khalil rose back to his feet and put his arm around Paki’s shoulders, letting the broad man help him up the rocky path to the mountain’s summit. Though he was working doubly hard to bear the weight of them both, Paki was still able to chatter happily about all the good the two of them would accomplish together.
“With you as chief, and me as head warrior, we will finally take control of the entire region. I’ll win the battles and give the land to you acre by acre. You will fill them with crops, and keep our people fat! Our fathers wanted to do this, Khalil. And their fathers before them. But you and I, we will be the ones to succeed!”
Khalil smiled in spite of himself. He had no such ambitions of his own, but it was always amusing to hear Paki’s enthusiasm.
“Reach out and grab the lip of the rock there,” Paki instructed. “Can you hold your weight while I get above? Good.”
Paki gripped the ledge at their heads and easily swung onto its surface, then turned and reached down to pull Khalil up as well. He sighed and looked his friend in the eyes.
“This is it,” Paki said solemnly. “Only chief’s blood past here.”
Khalil looked down and saw the stripe of dark red painted across the rock. Paki was correct. Khalil bent down to the mark and extracted a knife from the strap on his chest. A quick cut across the hand and he smeared the blood over the line, adding his legacy to it.
His price having been paid, Khalil stumbled forward, following the narrow path as it curved forward and to the left, the rock wall on his side seeming to fall away as he ascended to its level. The closer he came to the summit the fiercer the wind whipped him until it died away entirely as he emerged onto the wide, flat circle of the mountain peak. The Chief’s Peak. From up here only the tallest of the trees were visible, all others lost in the fog beneath him. Even those taller appeared like mere saplings from this elevation, and no other rock formation reached as high as he did now. Only the gray clouds above dared to challenge his sovereignty. Only the gray clouds above…and Abasi below.
Khalil sighed and shuffled to the center of the circular plane. He sat down in a meditative stance and tried to find his heartbeat. After a few moments he was calmed and allowed the spirit of the place to wash over him. Not even his fear of impending death could fully tarnish the grandeur of this place. The last six chiefs in their tribe had all been Khalil’s ancestors, and with the recent passing of his own father he was now number seven. This ritual of climbing to the Chief’s Peak made his title official. It was here that chiefs came to commune with the spirits of those that had gone before.
Now that he was officially chief, though, he could officially be challenged. Ever since they were youths, Abasi had been vocal of how dishonorable it would be for their tribe to be led by a cripple. Everyone knew he had intended to wait until Khalil’s father passed away and then herald a new line of rule.
Abasi would have to wait for the new moon and there make his challenge. Then the ritual battle would commence and Abasi and Khalil would fight to the death. Each of them could bring one companion into the ring with them, but the contest would conclude as soon as either the chief or his direct challenger lay dead.
Of course, Khalil could reject the challenge, or seek a more dishonorable way of removing Abasi, but either action would require his banishment from the tribe. Then, as an outcast in the jungle, he would meet an even crueler end.
“What would you have me do?” Khalil queried the stormy skies above him. “What is the purpose of my rule if it is to be so short?” Perhaps the spirits themselves wished the line of chiefs to change, and Abasi was merely carrying out their will? Perhaps his purpose was merely to die easily and make way for the new reign? But for Abasi? The man was a brute.
That rift between the tribe’s warriors had mounted nearly to the breaking point as Khalil’s father’s health had been declining. There were not many such as Paki that remained loyal to the old bloodline, most of the tribe members saw Abasi’s succession as inevitable. Those that did stand by Khalil were devout, though, and that might mean civil war.
“Father I am afraid for the tribe,” Khalil groaned. “If I am to be removed, so be it, but I worry that the fallout may split the worst against the best. If it comes to blood, then it will be the tribe as a whole that comes out the loser.”
He bent forward, touching his forehead to the cold rock as his tears flowed into one of its recesses and formed a little pool. His fate was worse than death, it was to lose the legacy of all that he loved. For a time all he heard was his own sobbing, and it was only as his heaving started to diminish that he recognized other soft sobbing sound mixed with his own. Surprised, he snapped his head up and turned to identify where the noise was coming from. At first he saw nothing, but then noticed a small bundle of white flesh rising and falling behind a clump of rocks. He awkwardly rose to his feet and hobbled over to investigate.
Khalil had never before seen a creature as the one the lay before him. It had no fur and no feathers, but the majority of its mostly-white-slightly-pink skin was covered in some strange dark shell. The being seemed to have long, bony limbs, across which was spread a thin membrane of skin like the wings of a bat. So entangled were these limbs and wings, though, that it was very difficult to make out the proper form of it. Protruding out from under one of those wings was what could only be a head. It was flat-faced and looking forward like a person, with large green eyes that flitted up towards Khalil in apprehension. Where its mouth ought to have been there was instead two rows of white mandibles, small and thin like the interlocked fingers of a child. Above the eyes were two tall, pointy ears, again calling to mind the image of a bat.
The creature was obviously in pain, and as Khalil looked closer he realized that the dark shell was actually the creature’s own dried blood. The source of it seemed to be an old spear wound in the creature’s side. Though the creature had escaped its assailant it had evidently come here to die. The ants seemed aware of its impending demise, and were already marching across it, following the trail of its blood. Gently Khalil reached down and brushed the insects away, and as he did so the creature raised its head to look at his hand. It made no other movement, only mewled softly.
Khalil was surprised to see it had strength to prop itself up, and wondered if there wasn’t still a chance for the creature. He cautiously and slowly reached around it, trying to find a good grip to pull it upwards. The thing moved its eyes up towards his face and made a strange, deep clicking noise in its throat. Khalil was uncertain if it was a growl…or a purr. He swallowed nervously and lifted upwards, pulling the thing into his arms. It was heavy and large, nearly the size of his entire torso. It shivered as he held it to his chest, and a single claw on the edge of its wing dug slightly into his shoulder, but only to better support itself. Khalil winced, then rose to his feet.
He hobbled back to the path that led down from the summit, and carefully descended until he reached his friend. Paki was sitting on a boulder in contemplation, but as he heard Khalil approaching he rose to his feet and greeted him with a smile that quickly changed to a look of disgust.
“What is that?!” he asked, stepping back warily.
“A gift from the spirits,” Khalil grunted. “And it’s heavy, so come and help me.”
“It might be venomous!”
“Don’t touch it then. I’ll carry it and you support me.”
Paki fidgeted uncomfortably, but made his way over to help. “I don’t like it. Couldn’t you have just leave it where it was.” He came near enough that Khalil could put his arm around Paki’s shoulder, and together the two continued down the path.
“It is hurt, and weak. It was going to die.”
“Yes, well, that happens in nature.”
“Yes, it does,” Khalil sighed heavily.
“I doubt it will even survive the trip down. Just don’t think I’m going to help you with it.”
Descending from the mountain was a far easier prospect than climbing it, even with the added burden of the new creature. They camped only one night and made it back to the village early in the afternoon of the next day. Now, in the quiet of his own hut, Khalil emptied a woven basket and laid the creature inside. It fixed him with its penetrating stare as he laid it down, moaning piteously.
“Patience,” Khalil whispered to it, then ambled over to the storage hut and returned with some raw meat, a bowl, and various herbs. He dipped a little water into the bowl and sat cross-legged on the floor next to the creature’s basket.
The creature made a pleased growling sound at the scent of the meat, and as Khalil offered a piece it snapped so vigorously that Khalil recoiled for fear of losing a finger. “Easy there. Easy…” he used his other hand to stroke the creature until it calmed down, then brought the meat close again and let it slurp the food from his palm. “That’s better. Now what am I going to call you?”
The creature remained docile even as Khalil ceased stroking it, allowing him to feed it more scraps of meat from one hand while he crushed the herbs and mixed them into a poultice with the other.
“Hmmm, Urafiki, that’s the name for you. And I do wonder what sort of creature you are. Not really a bat, but a little like it… I would think you’re too large to fly, but I can’t imagine you crawling all the way onto that mountaintop… And that mouth…” he watched the creatures mandibles slowly extend out to the next piece of meat, grip it tightly as if they were miniature hands, and then shovel the bite into the gaping hole of its mouth. Khalil shuddered unpleasantly. “I really don’t blame Paki for finding you unsettling.”
Khalil sighed at the mention of his friend. “I’m going to have to set Paki straight, he’s a good man and doesn’t deserve to get himself killed on my account.”
The creature was eating its food slower now, and its eyelids were drooping heavily.
“Yes, you need sleep. But first let me tend your wound.” Khalil grabbed a rag and a large bowl of water. He dabbed away at the dried blood, clearing it away until he could see the wound clearly. It wasn’t a spear jab, it was too small for that. Perhaps a blow from one of the creature’s own kind? In any case the blood started flowing again as Khalil patted away the last of the dried stuff, and Urafiki arched its neck to try and lick the spot.
“Here, this will be better,” Khalil assured it as he dipped his fingers into the poultice. He placed a clump on the hole and Urafiki hissed and nipped at his arm. “Ach!” Khalil winced, and looked down to see a small pinprick of blood on his bicep. Evidently Urafiki had teeth in that mouth. “I know it stings, I know! But it’s good for you, understand?” He got another dollop of the balm and began to lower it towards the wound. As he did so Urafiki craned its neck, expanding its mandibles back towards Khalil’s arm.
“Don’t you bite me,” Khalil glared at it and Urafiki stared him right back in the eyes. He lowered the poultice closer and Urafiki inched its head forward again. “I know it stings, I’m sorry.” Urafiki made a light hissing noise.
“Fine then!” Khalil pressed the poultice against the wound and in the same moment Urafiki latched back down on Khalil’s arm. Khalil winced but finished cleaning the area thoroughly, Urafiki clinging on and hissing the whole while. At last Khalil pulled his hands away and Urafiki also relinquished its bite.
“It’s a good thing you don’t know this poultice must be applied every day!” Khalil scolded. “I’ll make you a harness for your head before next time,” he muttered, examining the bite in his flesh. There was a single tooth mark, small but deep, as though a hole had been drilled straight into him. There was no discoloration or swelling that would suggest venom of any sort. Strangely, looking at the bite calmed him. Urafiki had not tried to seriously harm him, it had only returned offense for offense and then let him go. He could respect that.
Khalil looked over to the creature and saw that it was watching him with its eyes cocked in interest, as though curiously inspecting him. Slowly the expression faded as the eyelids began drooping again, and soon Urafiki was fast asleep, purring contentedly in the basket.
As I mentioned in my post on Monday, my intention with this story was to examine characters with different forms of communication. Here our main character Khalil has two interactions, those with his friend Paki and those with the creature Urafiki.
Paki and Khalil know each other well and seem to speak the same language. They were raised together, they share the same customs and patterns, and they are friendly to each other. However, at their core they do not understand one another at all. Khalil is feeling fearful and apprehensive, while Paki is confident and brash. Thus, even though they know the meaning of one another’s words they are constantly miscommunicating. The most obvious example of this is where Paki declares that weak things die in nature, and is then utterly oblivious to how that cruel fact applies to Khalil’s own situation.
On the other hand Khalil and Urafiki seem to share nothing. They not only do not speak the same verbal language, they are not even of the same species. They do not share a history together and each is initially unsure of the other’s intentions. Even so, they do share some common grounding experiences. They each find the other in a place of isolation, wounded and likely to die. They each are misunderstood and looked down on by others. They are each hurting and respect one another’s pain. For these reasons, the communication between them is more pure and on the mark than between Paki and Khalil.
A week from now I will post the second half of this story, and it will open with Khalil forcing Paki to understand his communication better. These moments of sharp clarity can often change relationships entirely, whether for better or worse. That is something I wish to discuss more with my post on Monday, check back then to catch that, and then again on Thursday for the next section of The Heart of Something Wild.
In a prior blog post I shared an experience I had while teaching in University. I was saying all the words to correctly describe the concepts I was supposed to be teaching, but I could tell that none of it was being comprehended. The students could understand every word that I was speaking, just not any of what was actually being said. In that moment I felt that the English language had failed me.
I’ve been on the other end of that experience as well. In my career I’ve received all manner of technical training, and I’ve certainly been guilty of just nodding my head while all of the information goes in one ear and out the other.
As a reader you’ve probably experienced this, too, moments where you read and reread the author’s prose, but just can’t seem to get what it is they are trying to say. In fact, for a writer to communicate their ideas effectively is probably more difficult than with any other communication medium. These efforts to paint worlds with words often requires pushing the boundaries of written languages to their very limits.
For one thing all visuals have been removed from the communication, everything has to be imagined. For another each language has its own blind spots where they lack the words to convey certain thoughts. Then, of course, there is also a strict limitation on the number of words that can be put in a sentence before it falls apart under its own weight.
Finally there is another limitation of words, one which I want to focus on particularly. Words tend to only useful down to a certain level of detail. They are good at communicating complex associations, but fall apart at the very simple things. As an example, it is easy to describe the wavelength characteristics of light, how they excite photoreceptors in the eye, the electrical signals that are then sent to the brain, and how all of this results in the sensation we call “the color blue.” But now can you tell me what it is actually like to see “the color blue?” Someone that is blind from birth can understand all of the technical details, firing the neurons necessary to stow the data in their brain. But they will never find the words that will fire the other neurons necessary to artificially reproduce the sensation of seeing color.
And yet…sometimes when I read words I do experience a physical sensation. When I read a menu I might salivate over the food being described and seem to taste them already in my mouth. Why is that? It turns out that this occurs when words are used as triggers to access memories in my mind. It’s not that any of the words “grilled shrimp slathered in garlic and butter” are inherently delicious in their composition. Rather it is the the memories those words call up that are delicious.
Think of it this way: the words on the page are the address on the envelope, leading you to the residence of your own memories. In this way any words can could be used to call up any experience, there just has to be an association between them. When my wife and I speak to each other we are able to use a shorthand because we know so well the memories one another holds and the words that will access them. Communication becomes less about what is being said, and more about the experiences that have been shared.
There’s a few important lessons in this for all writers. Let’s take a look at them one-at-a-time.
You Need to Connect)
When Pixar released their film Up they were lauded for their powerful opening montage. In this sequence we are introduced to the main character, Carl and a young girl, Ellie. We then watch the two of them become best friends, fall in love, get married, share a life, and then separate when Ellie passes away. Not only does this provide an emotional journey, but one that is shared between the main character and all of the audience.
From this point on the viewers now share a common language with the story. Everything that follows in the plot will makes perfect sense. We understand why Carl is grumpy, why he is irritated by a young adventure-seeker, why is so reluctant to leave his home. When Carl reacts to events that are happening around him we feel a ripple of that same reaction within ourselves because we remember the same things that he is remembering in that moment. We just getit.
If you want your reader to care about the things that happen in your story, you have to share meaningful experiences with them as soon as possible so that they will relate to the character’s state-of-mind. Then your protagonist and the reader are speaking the same language.
Describing vs Sharing)
But of course, part of using a shared language to connect to a reader is knowing when not to use this trick. In that same film, Up, we are later introduced to the villain, Charles Muntz. From his own lips we learn how he was pushed out from society’s limelight and ridiculed until he became obsessed with a monomaniacal objective. He has his reasons for his disposition, but those reasons are only described to us, not shared first-hand as they were with Carl’s past.
This is not the story being lazy, though, it is actually very clever. This technique means we don’t feel what Charles feels and we easily reject his conclusions. His sob story is supposed to go in one ear and out the other and that’s just what happens. We hear his woes, we don’t care, and we move on.
Why doesn’t the story want us to feel sorry for Charles? Because that would only get in the way of the experience the story wants us to be having in this moment. What the story wants is for us to be sharing in Carl’s sense of betrayal at this discovery. That sensation comes through loud and clear because of how the story has prioritized its communication to us.
Describe an experience when all you need is for people to understand what your character is feeling. Share an experience when you need for people to empathize with what your character is feeling.
New Languages from the Universal)
Of course none of those examples from Up work if people are not first moved by the opening montage. If viewers come away feeling annoyed at Carl and Ellie’s relationship then they really won’t care about Carl’s sadness or sense of betrayal. How is it, then, that the filmmakers managed to get the opening montage to work so well?
For this I’ll go back to my problem as a teaching assistant back in University. Rather than diving straight into the new material, I ought to have first established something common and familiar, something that we all understood equally. That would have put us all on the same page, and on that shared analogy we could have incrementally added all of the new material.
The reason that that opening sequence in Up works so well is because it utilizes universal experiences that almost everyone can relate to. It introduces us to Carl as someone that feels awkward and shy, sensations we’ve all experienced at some point or another. It shows the newly married couple doing all the sorts of mundane household chores, ones that each of us do in our own homes. It explores their desire of wanting great adventure, something that is common to all of humanity. It turns somber when the two learn they cannot have any children, one of the most basic fears in all potential parents. It uses music that swings from bright and playful to slow and somber. All of these things are universally relatable, and so they build that common foundation between character and viewer. All the unique aspects of their relationship that follows extends from common places we all have been.
Not Everyone Will Relate)
But obviously when I say these experiences are “universally relatable,” what I really mean is “mostly universally relatable.” In my previous story post, I wanted to establish a tone that was deep, thoughtful, and introspective. I decided to open on a beach with the rolling waves gliding against the coast. I chose this because this setting generally impresses us with themes of largeness, timelessness, and purposefulness. That makes sense, seeing as waves are big, constant, and follow deliberate motions.
But now suppose there is a reader who primarily associates beaches with their partying years in college. Or they might have suffered some tragedy during a boating accident. For these readers my referencing a coast may end up throwing them far from the intended atmosphere. But then no location is ever going to be 100% effective, is it?
I’m sure there were those that watched the opening montage of Up and did not come away with the intended experience either. One such audience might be the very young who have not yet experienced the full richness of life, or those who just barely lost a spouse and are still so lost in the bitterness that they cannot taste the sweet. The fact is these miscommunications are unavoidable, and the idea is only to minimize them as much as possible.
In general you can achieve better communication with your readers by first using universal concepts to establish a common ground with them. While doing so, allow them to share meaningful experiences alongside of the main characters so that they can relate to their perspectives and understand their later actions. Finally use those moments of connection deliberately, so that you can steer the reader into taking the sides you want them to have.
In my next post I’d like to explore this idea of language within the context of a story itself. I’ll present a main character and two companions for him. One is familiar and seems to speak the same language, another is alien and does not share of his vocabulary. How he communicates with both of these characters will transform through the experiences they share. As such those communications will be stripped of the periphery and pleasantries of idle conversation, and come to be based upon core needs and feelings. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of this exercise.
Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.
Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.
Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.
Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.
Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.
At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?
But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.
The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.
As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.
John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.
Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.
For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.
At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.
From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.
She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.
Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.
She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.
Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.
John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.
“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.
“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”
“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”
“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.
William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”
As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”
She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.
“I don’t want to, mother.”
Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”
John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”
“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.
And so they were.
This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.
As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”
Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!
After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.
By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.
Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!
New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.
The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.
That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.
Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.
What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.
But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?
My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.
Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.
Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.
A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!