Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.
So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.
So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.
That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!
On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.
He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.
This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.
I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.
Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.
This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.
Using the Essence of a Story
Using the Style of a Story
Using the Plot of a Story
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Using the Essence)
As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.
For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.
Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.
Using the Style)
But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.
Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.
But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!
Using the Plot)
I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.
The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.
More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.
Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.
“They were just sitting in the alley in a box. Someone must have been throwing them out.”
“How do you know? Maybe they were just keeping them there for safekeeping?”
Curtis shook his head. “I doubt that. But if you’re so worried, then you don’t have to be a part of it.”
“Well I wasn’t saying that…”
“Good. Help me get these sorted then.”
The two brothers worked side-by-side at the bedroom desk. The old box was tattered and warped on one side where the rain had fallen on it. It was dotted with black mold spots and smelled quite musty. But for how decrepit and trashy the box appeared, its contents were anything but.
Inside the box were two stacks of white…somethings. They were sturdy, very precisely shaped, and looked expensive. It was hard to say exactly what they were made of, plastic or painted metal it seemed to be at first glance. They were hard, heavy, and cold to the touch…or at least, cold at first. That was why the exact material was hard to guess, because the longer one touched the items’ surfaces the warmer the material got…warmer and warmer until it became uncomfortably hot and one had to draw their hand away! What sort of material behaved like that? And that wasn’t all. There was a strange tingle on the fingertip when touching them as well. Not like electricity, but almost as if it was sending microscopic waves through the skin.
One stack of the items was round, thin, disc-like. They were not quite perfect circles, each one of them had many notches and grooves cut into them. They were clean and precise excisions, with no stray fibers or detritus. The other stack was more rod-like in shape. Some were round, some were long, rectangular prisms, some were curved on one or two sides, and the opposite on the other ones. They were of inequal lengths, and some ended with a flat plane while others had slanted angles. Across all of the piece in both stacks there were intricate patterns of lines etched here and there. They were straight, with sudden right-turns like the traces on a circuit board.
Last of all, there was a single note included with the equipment, a small piece of paper on which someone had written “Some Assembly Required.”
The two boys had all of the equipment out of the box now, and handled one piece after the other, turning them over and over, trying to make sense of it all.
“What do you think it’s for?” Gavin asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like I’ve anything I’ve seen.”
“Some of the pieces fit together,” Gavin observed, slotting one of the rods into a disc’s hole.
“Yeah, so I guess you build something. Only…it’s weird.”
“There’s no screws or anything to keep it together. If we start stacking them together then pretty soon they’ll just fall apart.”
To demonstrate he flicked at Gavin’s rod, but to their surprise it didn’t topple over. He hit it harder with the back of his knuckles, still it didn’t fall.
“Hey, let me see that,” Gavin said, gripping the rod and trying to pull it out of its perch. It slid out easily.
“How did you do that?”
“I don’t know…it just came out.”
A few more minutes of experimentation and they determined that once two pieces locked together they could only be pulled apart at the exact angle they had slid together at. Any variation from that degree and they would feel like they were welded together instead. Thus they could be freely handled as one piece without fear of their falling apart.
“It isn’t magnets doing that,” Gavin said in bewilderment.
“No, never seen anything like it. Let’s see what other pieces we can fit together.”
After a quarter hour they had all of the most obvious connections sorted out. Rods had been slotted into about all of the holes that ran through the middle of the discs. Each of them connected at the rod’s end, so that it stood upright with the disc at its base. All of the notches along the edges of the discs were unfilled, though, and these were proving to be more difficult to solve.
“This notch looks like it should fit,” Curtis said, holding a rod against the edge of a disc. “But it isn’t locking in place like before.” He pulled his hand away and the rod clattered noisily to the table.
“Hmm,” Gavin said, picking the rod up. “Well, that notch is only encasing two of its sides. I’ll bet it goes between two discs, each covering half of it, and you need to put all three pieces together at once before anything will lock.”
“That’s a fascinating theory,” Curtis said with a yawn. “No, actually it is. But I think my curiosity’s run out on this.”
“What? You don’t want to keep playing with it?”
“What’s the point? It’s clearly not coming together into anything cool. It’s just some abstract art piece or something. No wonder it got thrown out!”
Gavin looked the pieces over. It was true that there was still no rhyme or reason to what they might be forming. They had just gone from random piles of discs and rods to a random pile of flagpoles. It clearly wasn’t going to come together into something cool like a toy or a radio…yet still…
“I want to keep working on it,” he declared.
“Great…over on your desk, I need this space for homework now. And you better get that ratty cardboard box out of here before Mom sees it.”
“Sure, sure.” Gavin knew Curtis felt pleased for having pawned all the junk off on his brother to take care of, but that didn’t matter. He dutifully moved all the pieces over to his side of the room, smuggled the box into the outside garbage bin, and then came back to work on the pieces.
He thought that finding the third piece for the rod and disc would have been simple. He systematically went around each disc, testing any groove that remotely matched the exposed edges of the rod. None of them were a perfect fit. He went through them all a second time just to be sure. No dice.
He shook his head in confusion, then decided to leave that particular rod for the time being. Instead he started finding all of the other partial fits that were possible. Fifteen minutes went by and the mystery thickened. Nearly all of the edge grooves had been accounted for: 47 out of 61. All 47 had a different rod that connected to them, meaning there weren’t enough remaining grooves to complete the fits.
“Great…there’s parts missing.”
He could hear his mother calling for dinner, so Gavin rubbed his eyes, flicked off the desk lamp, and left the room.
With homework and school the next day it wasn’t until the next afternoon that he sat back down at his desk and was reminded of the pieces. He frowned at them as his disappointment resurfaced. He really had been curious to see what they made, even if it was nothing more than some weird, abstract art-piece.
His mind wandered absently as he picked up on piece after another, feeling their weight and running his fingers along their lengths. For a moment he was lost in the sensations they made against his skin: the rippling, the heat. When he tapped them they made so muted a noise it was almost inaudible. That was strange, too. Sometimes they caught the light in a strange way, shimmering so brightly it seemed almost as if the illumination was being amplified.
He leaned in and looked at them even closer. It started to dawn on him how remarkably smooth they were. The rippling sensations on his skin had made it seem like they were textured but they weren’t. Not even a little bit. Smooth as glass, yet not made of glass. Even the lines etched into the sides were unbelievably uniform and straight. Not a single ding in any of them. The grooves which ran the full length of some of the discs never varied in depth or breadth. They just–
Gavin started with a shock. There were grooves cut down the middle of the discs! He had already seen them, of course, but had just dismissed them as just yet another oddity that couldn’t be accounted for. Now though he realized that they were the right length to hold a rod…when it was laid sideways.
Trembling with excitement he found the partially-enclosed rod he had been experimenting with the night before. One-by-one he fit it length-wise into the grooves running across the surfaces of the discs. As he did so he held the first disc firmly against the already-matched sides of the rod. He made it through eleven discs without finding a perfect horizontal fit. And then…
The three pieces locked into place. Two discs propped up at right angles to one another and the rod fusing them together at the corner. As with before, they stuck together as if welded. In fact undoing that weld was more difficult, because he couldn’t remove just one disc from the rod, he had to do both at the same time and still at just the right angles.
The epiphany made, it didn’t take him long to get all of the other partial-fits sorted out. Less than an hour later and he now had 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and 12 cobbled-together “islands.” Several of the islands had formed enclosed spaces, like square tubes that were open at two opposite ends. Well, usually square tubes, there were a couple where the discs did not actually meet up at exactly right-angles.
These new formations came with their own unique properties. When Gavin placed his ear by one of the openings he was able to make out a faint humming that emanated somehow from its center. Passing his hand into the disc-tunnels created even stronger skin-rippling sensations, powerful enough that he could see the skin rolling with little waves.
His next experiment was to hold a plastic toy soldier in his hand, reach to the center of the tube, and then let it go. The toy fell to the bottom, but it moved very slowly, and shook the whole way down like it was being buffeted by a silent wind.
Gavin looked around, trying to find something even lighter, something that might be able to float. He ripped off a small corner of notebook paper and it did indeed float lazily within the tube, never touching any of the surfaces, yet never coming to a rest either. It would follow a straight line, come close to a disc or rod, and then make a sudden hairpin turn away. Gavin tried to pick out a pattern to its movement, but it was much too complex.
Gavin grabbed Curtis’s hole puncher and emptied its contents into his hands. He dropped the whole pile in the middle of the tube all at once and watched as the cluster of paper pieces scattered in different directions. They tumbled around aimlessly for a moment, then slowly began to file into a line. Gavin could see now that their movement was not random, each paper’s turn was consistent with all the others. They made a sort of train, bouncing away from each surface at just the same angle, twisting and turning within the tube. Gavin fumbled through the supplies on his desk for a paper, pen, and ruler then he began to draw out the pattern he was seeing.
But the pattern never stopped. It just keep going and going, never repeating itself, until soon he had line-by-line drawn one massive dark splotch on his page.
A few more experiments followed, by which Gavin ascertained that each of his disc-tubes had distinct patterns from the others. Even the ones that weren’t fully enclosed would float the pieces of paper endlessly through their half-pipe or trench shapes. He also verified that he could lift up, rotate, and even shake the tube but the papers would continue unhindered. They wouldn’t even wiggle in their paths, as if all earthly forces such as gravity and air resistance simply did not apply within the tube.
Gavin made a note of these facts on a piece of paper.
The plastic soldier sunk to the bottom, he wrote, so I guess things have to be beneath a certain weight and then the tube takes them over entirely…
He paused and bit at the end of his pen.
What would happen if I were to step into a giant one of these tubes?
Would he be forever cut off from the rest of the world, unable to be pulled out by gravity or any another force? Well…he could still reach in his hand in and pull the pieces of paper out after they had been surrendered to the tube. And maybe that was because his hand was anchored to his arm which extended out of the tube. So as long as there was something that existed outside of the tube that could reach into it, it could alter things. But otherwise anything enclosed in the tube forever belonged to it. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought.
Unless…paper was dumb and it couldn’t move itself. What about something alive?
Gavin stood up from his desk and began scouring the room for the fly. When he couldn’t find one, he expanded his search to the whole house. Of course now when he actually needed a flay there was none to be found. So he went outside and found a few, but he knew he’d probably end up just squashing them if he tried to catch them. Instead he went back inside and looked up online how to make a simple fly trap with a mason jar. He modified the instructions a little. He didn’t add any dish soap to the sugar-water solution at the bottom of the jar so that the flies would avoid drowning. He needed them alive. His trap prepared, Gavin left the jar out on the porch and called it a night.
As I said on Monday, my intention with this story was to create a story that originated in an ordinary world, but which opened a gateway into the fantastic. One common element of stories like these is that they don’t need to spend a lot of time time in the ordinary world. Indeed, many of them enter into the new world within their very first chapter or two. All that really matters is that the reader have a familiar point of reference to begin with.
I’ve been having a lot of fun so far with this piece, but I do wish to give credit where it is due. This story of mine is written an homage to a highly skilled storyteller named Shane Carruth. This Monday I’ll explain a little bit more about him and his work, and then discuss how one can approach writing stories that are inspired by others. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!
From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.
What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.
First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.
Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.
But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.
How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.
And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.
The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.
To Find Truth)
The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.
So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.
Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.
This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.
Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.
Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.
On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.
What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.
These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.
A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”
“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”
“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.
“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”
He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.
“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”
“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”
Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, but in a very haughty and cruel way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.
“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.
“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”
“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”
Simon shook his head.
“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.
“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.
“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.
“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.
“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.
“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”
That was why. Because she left.
He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”
Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”
“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”
Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.
“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”
Oh that was it.
“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”
“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”
“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?
“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”
“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”
She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.
“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”
“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”
He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.
“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.
“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”
Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”
“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”
“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”
“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”
“Don’t lose your heart.”
“How is it going with that?”
Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”
“What makes it so hard?”
“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.
“Hiding away down here?”
“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.
She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”
There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”
“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”
“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”
“No more rules, Margaret.”
“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”
“I’m not playing.”
She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.
Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…
“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.
“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”
His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.
“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.
“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.
“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”
“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”
“Well I–I have to–”
“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”
Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.
“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.
“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”
“Is it that necklace?”
“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”
“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”
“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”
“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”
“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”
“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”
Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.
“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”
He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.
“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.
“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”
“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”
“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”
“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”
“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”
Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.
“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”
“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”
“You did, it’s around her neck now.”
“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.
“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”
Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.
“Just let go!”
“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”
“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”
“You’ll regret this!”
A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–
“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.
“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”
There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.
“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”
“I broke it. I lost it.”
“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”
“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.
“I lost them. These others are all I have.”
“They define me.”
“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”
His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.
“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.
“I lost it,” he cried.
“I kept it.”
He let go.
I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.
I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.
The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.
But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.
And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”
Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.
At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”
There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.
My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.
Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.
Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.
In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.
My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.
For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.
I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.
My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.
The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”
He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.
Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.
I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.
It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.
My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.
Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.
Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.
Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.
“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.
“Just my hand.”
“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”
“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”
“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.
To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”
Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.
One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.
“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.
Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.
I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.
“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.
“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”
Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.
That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.
“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.
“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”
“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”
“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”
“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”
Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!
All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”
It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.
I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.
He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.
It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.
Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.
“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”
“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”
He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.
One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.
And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.
While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.
In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.
My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.
I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.
“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”
“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”
I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.
“Pa…what are you doing here?”
“Son, what are you?”
My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”
“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”
“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”
My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”
“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Well that was that.
I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.
“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.
Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.
As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.
Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.
The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.
His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.
And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.
As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!