Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Howie turned his car back towards the desert and soon a long-lingering plume of dust was the only evidence of him that remained in town. As the sun slowly lowered through the sky he reached the first set of rock formations, stones the size of hills, scattered about like some giant had dropped his pebble collection when walking by.

The first three of these monuments had sides that were too curved and too smooth to climb, but the fourth had started to break under the combined strain of erosion and its own weight. It had a large fracture right down the middle, and each half had fallen back in a state of half-collapse. Howie was able to pick out a path through the rubble clear to the top, and within ten minutes he sat on its crown, peering out at the lowering sunset. It would be dark when he climbed back down, but he had had the good sense to bring his flashlight with him.

As Howie sat still the rock face slowly began to unveil its life. Everything that had scuttled for safety at his approach, cautiously peeped back out now that he was still.

First it was the ants. Small, black troops marched onto the fringes of his jeans, investigated the new spectacle, then turned to look for more likely sources of food. Soon after the ants came the geckos. Three of them skittered over the rock face, carelessly lapping up the ants as they ambled by.

“How nice it must be to hunt prey that doesn’t even know to run away,” Howie mused to himself as the gecko nearest him slurped up one ant, and then a moment later the ant’s unconcerned neighbor. As Howie looked around his eyes fell on the tufted tail of a napping bobcat sticking out from behind a sage bush. “Though I guess you make up for it by being the prey when she’s awake.”

As the sun burned red, orange, and finally receded against the march of ink-blue sky, new life came out on the scene. Crickets were chirping from unseen corners and a horde of tiny fruit flies buzzed in a cloud just to the left of Howie. He watched their mass chaos, and was reminded of what he had been told about electrons trembling between random states in a molecule. It seemed to him that these flies never really existed in one place, either, but rather shuddered between multiple existences in rapid discontent.

The bobcat was out strolling now, and after a few geckos had been made into a meal the rest of the lizards made themselves scarce. The cat perched on a rock and silently revolved its head, watching for the telltale signs of small critters poking back out to see if the coast was clear. Howie watched, too, and was pleased to find that he was able to spot some of them the geckos extending their necks out even before the cat did.

It was well into the night now, and all was painted faint blue by the moonlight. It was enough that Howie could still perceive the gist of what went on about him. The geckos were entirely absent now, unable to keep active in the cool, night air, so the bobcat had settled on cleaning itself.

There was an owl hooting on one of the neighboring rock formations, and Howie could hear the occasional skittering of mouse paws in the cracks of the rock beneath him. He wondered what sort of animal world was churning beneath him that very moment, totally invisible but very real. It was a very big world they all shared. Surely too big, Howie thought, to notice the loss of an individual life.

Suddenly the bobcat perked up and leaned its head intently towards a nearby sage bush. Howie followed the predator’s stare, but at first couldn’t make out anything unusual about the shrub. But of course, he did not have the eyes and ears of a bobcat, and so it was another half-minute before he finally perceived the slight rustling at the base of the sage where some creature was burrowing.

Slowly, silently, the bobcat lowered from its perch and advanced on the spot, one single paw-step at a time.

Howie licked his lips and watched as the movement behind the sage suddenly stopped. Whatever was roosted back there had detected that something was amiss. The bush was backed by a rock face, so there could be no escape that way. The bobcat knew this, and did not want to dart around one side of the sage, and thus allow for the prey to slip out from the other. The bobcat wanted its meal to panic and bolt into its waiting paws.

Even the buzz of the insects and the scampering of the mice feet had ceased. All the fauna seemed to sense the precarious balance in the air, and waited either in reverent horror to see what would transpire. And wait they must, for whatever was hiding in the bush proved to be quite patient. Five full minutes passed and neither the hunter nor the prey moved an inch. Finally the bobcat fell to pacing back and forth, crossing in front of the bush in one direction, then turning back the other way, and never straying so far to one side or the other as to leave an avenue open for escape.

Howie had just started guessing how the bobcat might try to flush the creature out when the silence was broken. The creature in the bush had darted to the right, rustling the entire shrub in the process. Like lightning the bobcat pounced, but even as it entangled its paws in the thicket the animal, a large, brown hare, bounded out from the left. It had feinted! Kicked one side and then leaped to the other, and the bobcat had fallen for it!

Now the hare came streaking over the rock, bounding from ridge to ridge. The bobcat was in pursuit, but at much too much of a disadvantage. The hare was taking a straight line to the rocky chasm. It would escape into the underground tunnels and live another day. It would–

Thwock!

Seemingly out of nowhere Howie’s arm snapped out, and he crushed the bounding hare’s body beneath his heavy, metal flashlight. So immobile had Howie been, and so full of the thrill of escape had the hare been, that the bounding creature had entirely unseen Howie as it streaked right past his seat.

Now it twitched on the ground, its back legs still trying to run and escape, pumping futilely in the air as small whimpers came out of its broken chest. The bobcat did not try to claim its meal. It had been so startled by the sudden strike that it had instantly made itself scarce, as indeed had all other life on the rocky ridge.

Howie glanced at his watch, though he already knew that it must be time now. He picked himself up, flicked on the flashlight, and made his way down the rock and over to his car. As soon as the engine started he switched the headlights off. The streets were completely deserted back in the town of Davey’s Fall, and he let his car move at a silent crawl into its perch beneath the west staircase of Bay View Motel.

It was only midnight, and so he had a bit of wait, but that was as intended. Best to silently sit out the last two hours here, and let the world around him settle back to its regular rhythms. That was why he always he succeeded in his line of work. He didn’t try to force things, he didn’t try to push the world. He let it move around him, let it breathe naturally, and then just waited for the moment to be right.

And so he settled back in his idling car, reclined the seat, and popped a sucker into his mouth. It was blueberry, and for a long while he just closed his eyes and sucked on it hard. He liked feeling the juice slide in two streams down either side of his mouth and into his throat. Howie didn’t turn on the radio, but he did quietly hum an old favorite ballad and tapped his fingers in time to the tune. Every half hour he checked his watch to verify that it had, indeed, been a half hour. But each time he already knew. When one has counted out two hours by half-hour increments enough times, one knows.

And so Howie knew it was 2 AM even before glancing at his wrist to confirm the fact. He reached into the back seat and pulled his bag up next to him. Out came the work gloves carefully fitted over his fingers. Then came the gun, and the bullet magazine from a side pocket. He slid them together, made sure one bullet was loaded in the chamber, then placed the weapon on the dash. Next he pulled out his phone, dimmed its brightness, and opened the image he had of one “Reese McCay.”

Howie was ready.

He pocketed the gun on the right side of his jacket, pocketed the phone on the left. He stepped out of the vehicle, but left the door open and the engine running. Silently, but confidently, he stole up the steps of the staircase and moved four doors down. The doorknob spun freely and the door swung in. He stepped into the dark room, trusting his memory of its layout to guide his steps. Silently he shuffled until he was at the foot of the bed.

Howie pulled out the gun and leveled it towards the head of the bed, then he pulled out the phone and held it sideways, also pointing its back towards the head of the bed. A flick of his thumb and the phone’s flashlight switched on, bathing the room in unnatural, white light.

A man flinched against the pillows and squinted, trying to wake up enough to make sense of what was going on. Howie’s eyes darted from the person before him to the picture he had open on his phone. Tall, thin, black man, with a pencil moustache and a tousle of untidy hair. It was him.

“Hey what’s–” Reese started to say when Howie pulled the trigger and an explosion of violence erupted through the space. Reese gasped and Howie pulled the trigger again to make sure that the job was done.

Now he shoved weapon and phone back into his pockets and strode quickly, but deliberately, out of the room. He made down the pathway past one, two, three of the rooms. The light turned in the fourth, and Howie raised his left arm to shove back anyone who emerged…but no one did.

He clattered down the stairs and into his car, shifting it into Drive before he had even shut the door. He didn’t roar off into the night, but he did move with clear intent, peeling off onto the main street and taking the first right towards the highway. In less than two minutes he was nothing more than two pinpricks of taillight, fading out of Davey’s Fall forever.

 

And here we are at the end of our story. I shared on Monday about how some stories change a character over the course of their plot, and some instead change the audience’s perspective of the character.

This latter approach was the one I intended for the story of Howie Stuggs. The entire tale takes place over a matter of about eight hours, and it isn’t like he is going to have a total life-changing experience in that short window.

But even so, he does seem to change, at least at first. In the opening scenes he is nothing but warm and gregarious, but these moments are following by him lying to a motel clerk and taking out the lock on a private room, thus unveiling a new side of deceit and crime. Then he moves on to a conversation with a mechanic that also starts as pleasant, but gradually becomes uncomfortable and raises some dark questions. Immediately after he is hostile towards a vagrant, and some of the text suggests he even has violent desires towards him. Next he goes out into the middle of nowhere, and while there suddenly, and without being provoked, kills a hare.

Howie now seems like a very different man from how he began, and finally we reach the climax where he returns to the motel and murders a man in cold blood, then drives away to a new town that does not know his crimes. Suddenly his “change” is seen for what it really is: a cycle. Howie comes into a town, puts on a face of warmth and kindness, but then when the time approaches for his dirty deeds he works up the hate necessary to kill. Then he disappears and shows up at his next destination, all smiles and Southern-hospitality once more.

We are now coming to the end of our latest series, and there is only one more story that remains to tell in it. Before I get to that, though, I want to consider the theme that has remained consistent across every entry that we’ve seen.

In the Soldier’s Last Sleep, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath, Washed Down the River, and Slow and Easy, Then Sudden, I have endeavored to cultivate an ending that transforms the story in its final moments. Each one sows the seeds of their climatic finish throughout, but then blossoms in a way that either feels unanticipated or sudden. I’d like to pause and take a closer look at how exactly a story can be written with an end that is both surprising and satisfying. Come back on Monday to read about that.

This Changes Everything!

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Beings of Change)

I’ve never had the convenience of meeting the same person twice. I’ve known many people under the same name, and usually all somewhat similar to each other, but each comes from a slightly different context that has changed them. We speak of individuals, but inside every body lives a legion.

Our ability to change who we are is one of the greatest traits of humanity. It means that the sinner can repent, the simple can become wise, and the downtrodden can learn to hope. Obviously each of these traits can also flow in the opposite direction, too, but it is worth the risk of good people turning evil to preserve the opportunity for evil people to turn good.

Much of our thought is in fact spent contemplating how different we once were in the past, and how different we hope to be in the future. Both remorse and contentment are based upon perceiving a change of oneself, either for the better or the worse.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are beings that refuse to remain in one place for long, and that ever-shifting nature is sure to bleed through into all our creations. It was always inevitable that authors would endeavor to imbue their characters that same transient nature that was imbued in them.

 

Dramatic Change)

Indeed many stories have chosen to make the changing nature of their character the entire focus of their tale! A Christmas Carol would be a story about absolutely nothing, if it did not feature the total transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Every scene and every experience is targeted towards pulling at that man’s strings, puppeteering him into the person he ought to be.

On the flip-side, tragedies are usually about the loss that comes by being unable to change. King Arthur has a lofty vision for a different sort of government, and for a time it seems he will achieve his aim. But it requires that his subjects to lift themselves higher, to overcome their vices and their follies. When they fail to do so, and instead hold on to their common vices, so too the kingdom must fall back to their debased level.

The example of dramatic change in a story that I wish to focus most closely on, though, is that of Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen goes to great lengths to get the reader to thoroughly despise the story’s leading man right from the outset. Then she has the challenging task of making us love him by the end.

This is wisely accomplished by gradually effecting the change over a great many scenes. At one party we see him recant his unwillingness to dance with Elizabeth, in another we hear tell of his generosity and kindness, shortly thereafter we witness his warmth to his guests, and in a letter we learn of the misunderstanding that led to his previous callous behavior. Then, finally at the end, he is selflessly sacrifices a massive amount of wealth for the woman he has come to love.

Just like Elizabeth Bennett, we have come to see him differently from how we did at first, and because the process has been so gradual and natural, we are able to believe in it. What is unique about Pride and Prejudice, though, is that while Mr Darcy does change somewhat over the course of the story, far more it is only the perspective of him that really evolves.

Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Jane Austen fully developed the character in her mind before beginning any writing, flaws and virtues and all. Then, all she had to do was introduce us to Darcy on a bad day–any character can be made to look negative when cast in the worst light–and then she just reintroduced us to the same man over and over in kinder and kinder lights.

Each new scene he still feels like a consistent character, because he remains the same person, just illuminated in a different way. And by blending all of these views together we finally come to understand him as a whole. By the end we perceive that he is still just as capable of being stuffy and judgmental to those he believes have malicious intent…but now we know that he also has a kinder and gentler side for those he trusts as well.

 

Subtle Change)

But not every story has to feature a complete reversal to change how we feel about a character. There are many tales that feature a great subtlety in how the character we are introduced to is shifted into someone else.

In the novel Mrs Dalloway, the entire arc of her husband, Richard, is that he progresses from feeling disconnected to his wife, to wanting to tell her that he loves her, to deciding not to actually go through it. Thus there is nothing particularly dramatic to his trajectory, but that does not mean his changes are insignificant. On the contrary, even in their quietness they mean everything.

Quite recently, I saw a film which had an excellent use of subtle change, the World War 1 drama 1917. In this movie two young soldiers are given the burden of carrying all-important orders to the front line. Their route is fraught with danger, but the lives of thousands of their comrades depends upon their success.

The film goes to great lengths to establish authenticity in its opening sequences, the dangers that the two face are very grounded. This sharp realism serves to make their situation all the more harrowing. You truly feel that two young boys have been sent out to face a very real menace, a horrible burden for anyone to bear, let alone those so inexperienced.

Things do become more grandiose as the film continues, but the vulnerability of the boys, particularly of the main character, Lance Corporal Schofield, remains. And that sense of youthful vulnerability continues clear to the end, when that main character finally collapses beneath a tree and pulls a tin out of his breast pocket. Therein we see the pictures of his wife and two little girls, which is a small revelation to the viewer. The question has been raised previously whether Schofield had a family, but with how the film has cast him in such a young and vulnerable light that seemed impossible.

Now, though, as with Mr Darcy, the perspective shifts. And though he is the same boy we have seen the whole film long, he is now colored in a new light. Where before he was only a boy, now he is a young father, shadowed by a big and scary world, but still trying his hardest to do his duty.

 

Thursday I shared the second piece of my current story, in which our main character started to be cast in a new light, just as Mr Darcy and Lance Corporal Schofield were. He yet remains the same man as before, but we start to feel differently about him. Clearly something ominous is looming before him.

As with the examples I have shared today, I hope it will be a story where it is the reader that changes more than the character. Also my hope is that when we see him at the end of the story, we will be able to resolve all of the previous perspectives that he will have been shown in. We’ll see whether I’m able to pull this off or not with my third and final entry this Thursday. See you there!

Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Two

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Part One

Next door to the motel was the auto repair shop, exactly the place that Howie needed. He lazily steered his car into the neighboring parking lot, gave his horn two toots, then settled back until the shop owner came out to greet him.

“Well good afternoon, stranger,” the man smiled as he strode up to Howie’s open window. He was wearing the familiar uniform of blue coveralls stained in oil, and was wiping his hands on a yellow rag.

“Good afternoon,” Howie returned, then extended his hand to show he wasn’t afraid of a little dirt. The workman took hold and each gave a solid shake.

“Trouble with your car?” the mechanic asked.

“Mmm, not sure. It’s been making a noise I’m not used to, though, and figured I ought to check it out before continuing down the highway.”

“Good for you. I’ll pop open the door, you just go ahead and wheel her right in.”

Three minutes later the mechanic was buried up to his elbows in the car’s engine, while Howie rested his folded arms on the open driver’s-side door, watching the man work.

“A sort of, repeating popping noise you said?” the mechanic clarified.

“That’s right. That’s the one I don’t know. There’s also a chugging sort of sound, but I know what that is. Things get caught up in my exhaust all the time, I just don’t have my tools to fix it myself right now. Say what was your name?”

“Oh I’m sorry. I’m Andy.”

“Andy–?”

“Andy…Griffith,” the man smiled slightly.

“Well I’ll be!” Howie chortled. “That a joke?”

“No sir! Course when I was born that name didn’t mean anything at all.”

“No, of course not. I take it you never fancied work as a police man?”

“Fact is, I did! My old man was an officer during the Great Depression, and I always wanted to be one, too. But then he died on the job, and I couldn’t stand to follow that path anymore.”

“He was shot?” Howie’s eyes grow wide.

“No, silliest thing actually. Some delivery truck got a flat and he was helping change the tire. Jack broke and–well–he was underneath.”

“Huh,” Howie thought for a little. “Seems a little strange, though. You couldn’t see yourself becoming a police officer, but you don’t mind working with cars? Even though it was one of them what killed your daddy?”

Andy gave a grim little smile. “When you put it like that I guess it is a little strange. Can’t account for it. Just never blamed the machine I guess. At that point you might as well be swearing off jacks, and tools, and even gravity at that point. Can’t live that way.”

“No I guess not.”

“Well, and now that I think about it, might be I just used the sad story to explain my career change because it tasted better than telling people that I just didn’t like the idea of policing any more. Kinda became disillusioned with the force after I got stopped a time or two for silly things like breaking curfew. Made the profession lose its gloss for me, I guess.”

“Mmm,” Howie nodded. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I have all sort of respect for a real man of honor, someone like who your daddy sounds to have been, what with helping people through some of the hardest times, but I can’t stand some of these young upstarts when the power goes to their head. They don’t even know what they’re out policing for, or what rules matter and which one’s don’t, and forget that taking care of others is supposed to be their first calling.”

“That’s the truth. Now what did your daddy do?”

“Oh he was a bank robber.”

Andy gave a start, “That a joke?”

“No sir! Well I figure your daddy and mine wouldn’t have gotten along too well, now would they?” Howie laughed at the thought. “Course those were simpler times where you didn’t have all these security features and silent alarms and all that. So it was pretty easy for him to walk in with a tommy gun and a handkerchief over his face.”

“Was he famous for it?”

“Nah…tell you the truth he only ever did it once or twice. I just like to introduce him that way because it was just about the only notable thing he ever did do. Otherwise he was a professional drunk.”

“Ah. Well I’ll tell you, robbing a bank even once sounds like a lot to me!”

“Does it? I mean back then it wasn’t much heavier than holding up a really big convenience store, really. Like robbing a Macy’s today.”

“Well I still don’t intend to hold up any Macy’s” Andy laughed. “Now…was that popping noise happening mostly when you were making turns? I’m thinking its about down to the CV joint to be our culprit now.”

“Might be. Can’t really say I paid enough attention to notice.”

“Yeah, pretty sure. This’ll just be a minute. Say, did you serve in any war?”

“I was too young for World War 2 by a little, but yeah, in Korea.”

“Same for me on both.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just what you were saying about robbing a bank being like holding up a convenience store. I guess to men like us who have gone to war a lot of crimes seem a whole lot less horrifying.”

“Mm-hmm. Can be hard to tell yourself killing is different in a war than at home.”

“Well you just come right out and say it, don’t you?! I’ve talked with a lot of vets, but never heard any of us admit to that idea before.”

“But we all know that we’ve thought it,” Howie said in a carefree manner. “I mean at the time, no. At the time we had to keep the two separated very neat and fine, didn’t we?”

“Only way to stay sane,” Andy agreed, but his face was starting to look terse.

“But after a while the mind starts to wonder. Like when you come home and someone got murdered in the papers and everyone around you is so shocked but you’re thinking ‘yeah, what of it?’ Someone always dies, and probably the latest poor sap isn’t as great a loss to the world as some of the other fellas who died beside you. Maybe even you already killed some men what was better.”

“I…I’m not so sure I know what you mean there,” Andy said slowly.

“No? Sure, I guess you can’t stay in thoughts like that. What can come of it? You just gotta shrug it off and say ‘I probably got a little mixed up.’ No shame in that, plenty of boys came back from the war mixed up even worse. So you just stifle down those mixed-up parts because society has to go on or else–well or else what’s the point to it all?”

“Mmm,” Andy nodded vaguely. “Well hey, it was definitely your CV joint. Got it all fixed out now. Give me just a second and I’ll have your exhaust unclogged as well.”

Howie had the good sense to see that this conversation had drifted uncomfortably close to the other man’s more private feelings, and so he didn’t try to make any more conversation for the next ten minutes. They had each seen one another a little more plainly than suited Andy, and probably he’d be in a foul mood that night because of it. Howie was much less fazed by it all, he had walked down the halls of his broken nature, and had found his own to way to make peace with it. But even so, it wasn’t like he would put the pressure on a fellow vet, so he sat and drummed out a rhythm on his knees, and when Andy told him the car was all set he thanked him, paid him, and left from that place.

He started down the road leading away from the highway, intending to follow its rugged path out into the desert. There were some nearby rock formations that he thought might be interesting to take a stroll around, not to mention that he had already shown his face to more than enough people in town today.

But just before he passed the last fringe businesses of town his eyes settled on a vagrant standing on the corner of the post office, holding a sign that said “Ashamed, but hopeful. Please help.” Howie frowned at that, then spun his car into the parking lot. As he exited the vehicle and stepped out the vagrant nodded to him slowly, clearly hoping that he was about to receive a hand-out.

The man was rail-thin, with his elbows protruding so far through the skin that it seemed they might burst out at any moment. His complexion was deeply tanned from spending so long in the hot sun, and his head and chin were covered in a scraggly, gray mess of hair. His sunken face made it appear as though his eyes were unnaturally large, and they peered out, a clear and piercing blue.

“What sort of man begs in a sleepy, little town like this?” Howie demanded with a scowl.

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead.” The vagrant’s voice was cracked and unnaturally high, but the words he chose proved that his mind still functioned properly.

“Now I’ve spent a day here, and these are good folks in this town. If they haven’t taken care of you, then they must have something against you.”

“Even a bad man still needs to eat.”

“No, see, that’s your problem. You call yourself a ‘bad man’ and of course no one’s going to let you eat. People don’t have pity on a ‘bad man.’ Look at you! You’re literally wearing a big sign asking everyone to hate you. ‘Ashamed but hopeful?’ Why I’ve never heard of anything so foolish.” There was a real vehemence in Howie’s voice, as though he found something genuinely offensive about the man’s demeanor, as though he would like nothing more than to grab him and break him right there in broad daylight for being so stupid. “Let me explain it to you plain and simple, everyone is a bad man. You got no monopoly there. But it all comes down to marketing. Every bad man is good once he presents himself like he is!”

The vagrant could feel the dry heat in Howie’s words and his eyes turned moist and intense and some loose spittle flew from his lips as he spoke. “Don’t I know it! But I wasn’t the one that called me bad first. They’ve done branded me now, and people don’t really change their opinion once they’ve made up who you are.”

Howie’s scowl broke into a cold, mean smile. “Well that much is true. You already done ruined yourself here, haven’t you?”

“So what am I supposed to do then? Doesn’t matter what I call myself now, I’m already known for what I am.”

“No, you’re still wrong. Cuz brands don’t stick to a man, they stick to a place. The new man in town is…a new man. You want a chance in life? You gotta get out of here, brother. Get to someplace where no one knows you and start calling yourself a ‘good man’ there.”

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead,” the man repeated longingly.

“That would probably be best…but not with me,” Howie turned back around and started walking to his car. “I don’t trust you.”

“I’m a withering, old crumb!” the vagrant called after him “I couldn’t do anything to you!”

“No,” Howie laughed as he extended his foot into the vehicle. “No you couldn’t. Let’s say I just don’t like you then.” And he slammed the door closed and drove away.

Part Three

 

On Monday I talked about stories that suspend the plot in order to lean into character development. This section’s conversations ultimately have nothing to do with the greater plot of the story, but all the moments that follow will make far more sense because I took the time to reveal this side of Howie Stuggs.

Because the fact is, Howie is not entirely the same man in this section that he appeared to be in the first. As with getting to meet a new person in real life, the facade we first get to know if often very different from the actual human who lurks beneath. With the start of the story we introduced Howie the same way he introduces himself: warm, playful, and pleasant. But with today’s entry we start to see that there are strong currents of anger and nihilism coursing through him.

A character that changes over the course of their story can be a delicate thing to manage. On the one hand, an evolving personality is one of the hallmarks of good story-writing, and can many times will feel more believable and interesting than a character who forever remains the same.

But at the same time, any change has to feel warranted, has to feel grounded in what we already know. The character can change, but only in a way that makes sense. With my next post I would like to examine some great characters from stories, and specifically how they or the perspective of them changed over time. I will look at examples of how this has been done subtly, and how it has been done dramatically. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we will see the final evolution of my character Howie Stuggs.

Get to the Point

black and white dartboard
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A Reason For the Chaos)

One of my favorite films is Gravity, in which a cloud of debris is orbiting the earth, each piece of shrapnel racing through space faster than a bullet. This cloud of destruction happens across a low-orbiting space shuttle, where it kills every astronaut but one, who must now try to find a new vehicle back to earth.

The film is known for its intense moments of action, in which utter chaos explodes across the screen for extended periods of time. Each one of these sequences directly pushes the plot forward, as the aftermath defines what resources are still available for the character to use.

But then, between each moment of intense action, there are quieter moments where we get to know our leading lady a better. After the initial wave of destruction she slowly floats towards the International Space Station, while musing about a daughter that she lost and how this thrust her into a constant state of depression.

The second-third of the film culminates in another quiet moment, one where she finally comes to terms with that tragedy in her life. These moments of quiet introspection do not move forward the one of her getting back to earth, but they do provide us a reason to care that she does.

In a previous blog post I made a comment that the means and the ends of a story are often flipped between the audience and the character. Usually the character puts up with the moments of intense action so that they can get to the “good stuff,” the quiet reprieve that makes it all worth it. But often the audience puts up with the quiet reprieve so that they can get to their “good stuff,” the rousing action!

 

Interesting in Its Own Right)

Of course just because a scene is calmer does not have to mean that it is boring. Obviously the ideal is for the quiet, introspective moments to be just as fascinating in their own right. One film that I felt did an excellent job of this was First Man. This movie is peppered throughout with sudden scenes of tragic destruction, which certainly do their part to add a sense of grim despair to the film.

Yet as sudden and impactful as those moment were, I was more moved by the quiet scenes of Neil Armstrong silently grieving the loss of his young daughter. The simple scenes of a family under duress were not distractions from the greater plot, they were themselves the main event.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how the film draws itself to a close. After a prolonged space sequence, a breathtaking view of the moon, and a euphoric world reaction to the returning heroes…the camera then pulls close to Neil and his wife looking somberly at one another through a pane of glass while he remains in quarantine. Their eyes reflect a longing to be closer, but also a sadness at still not knowing how to talk to each other. So they just join fingertips and look.

Because of the excellent performances I found myself genuinely caring about their family drama, indeed even more than that of the trip to the moon. And I considered more how his space-ventures were hurting his family than how his family was hurting his space-ventures.

 

Pulling Double Duty)

But where Gravity and First Man clearly separate plot-pushing action from character-building reprieve, other stories try to accomplish both at the same time. In my opinion, being able to pull off such multitasking is impressive, but a story that doesn’t feature it is not therefore inherently inferior. In music some expressions are particularly delightful on the ear, yet not every composition needs to feature them.

An example of a story that expertly accomplishes two things at once, though, is Ad Astra. It opens with our main character expressing his total commitment to the mission aboard a space-scraping tower, not allowing anything to get in the way of his focus, including trivial things like family, connection, and self-care. Then an accident occurs, the tower explodes, and his character is sent spinning like a ragdoll through the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

It is an exciting sequence, and it certainly starts the story off with a bang! But it is doing more than just entertaining, it is also a subtle piece of character development. Ad Astra is a man who is falling apart from the inside. He thinks he has things totally in control, but in reality he is at great risk of self-imploding. Though he manages to survive the fall from the tower–barely–he may not survive the fall from himself.

Another example of the film pulling double duty occurs when our hero has a very unexpected battle with a brutal primate. The creature is defined by its great primal rage, something that Ad Astra has long tried to suppress in himself, but is starting to burst out of him everywhere.

The film continues the pattern of subtext and allegory. Each scene of action is also one of introspection, each scene of introspection is energized by inner turmoil.

 

On Thursday I posted the first piece of a story that featured slow scenes that lazily indulge heavily in character and environment. First we met our main character, Howie Stuggs, in a diner, having an inconsequential conversation with his waitress about apple pie. Then we learned about his general opinions of big city folk versus small town folk. Only after that did I start to move the plot forward as Howie began to scope out the location for his next job. But even this moved forward at a very slow and deliberate pace, and was peppered throughout with character quirks that mean nothing to the plot that will follow.

The purpose of these details was not to push the plot forward, though, it was to provide insight to the man Howie Stuggs. Why did I feel that this was a valid use of time for this story? Because at the end of the day, this story really isn’t about the events that transpire, it is about the person that does them. If it was about the events, then I should “trim the fat” and be succinct. But since this is a character piece, I do not consider any of these moments to be a waste.

With my next post I will continue Howie’s little story, and in it the plot will continue to move forward at a snail’s pace. The man behind the tale, however, will be brought into even deeper relief, and hopefully just getting to know him will be a satisfying reward for the reader’s time. There are still a few more character wrinkles yet to show, and then finally the purpose of them will come out in the third and final section.

Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part One

kitchen cooking baked oven
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

 

“Anything else I can get you, honey?” Annie asked. She was a plump, little waitress, and Howie Stuggs was enjoying her pleasant southern drawl. She was cheeky and conversational. Howie was conversational, too.

“Well I’ll tell you what,” Howie said in his gravelly, deliberate baritone, “that meatloaf and potatoes has done filled me right up, and really I ought to be done.” He smiled and gave a wink. “But I am a creature of habit, and I ain’t never had a dinner without dessert in nearly fifteen years now!”

“Well I cannot allow that Del’s Diner would be the place you broke such a longstanding tradition!” Annie grinned. “Did you need to look at the menu again? We do recommend our Apple Pie to everyone that comes through here.”

“I think I remember it from the menu,” he closed his eye to recall the image. “Was $2.50 for a slice?” he asked in surprise. “Is that right?”

“And worth every penny!”

Howie chuckled. “I’m not surprised at how little, not how much! But then, I just got back from New York. A slice of that Apple Pie would do quite nicely, thank you.”

She made a mark on her notepad and walked away. Howie smiled contentedly to himself as he leaned back in his chair and placed fork and knife on his finished dinner plate. In truth it wasn’t the prices in New York that alarmed him most, it had been the lack of this hospitality. Hospitality, he had learned, was the result of having enough time. If people were always in a rush, then they couldn’t stop to give any of themselves. Here in a small town like Davey’s Fall you could sit down and really get to know a person. They were more real here. They had a sort of aura about them, and when one of them walked into a room the others knew who it was without even having to turn around and see.

Howie’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket and squinted at it as his fingers hunted for the right buttons to press. He didn’t care for this new technology. If the world wanted to have it, fine, but he wished his employers didn’t require him to as well. Eventually he worked out how to open the message and read its confirmation. Tonight then.

Annie was coming back and Howie shoved the phone back into his pocket. He smiled as she set down the plate, upon which sat a massive sector of apple pie. A slice of cheddar cheese was draped over half of it, softened by the heat until it molded to the shape of the dessert. Howie took hold of fork and knife again, and let the steam waft up to his nose as he gave a long, deep snuff.

“Seems a pity to break it,” he winked to Annie.

“More the pity not to.”

He plunged the fork through its flaky crust and carved the knife through slices of apple that had turned soft as jelly. He tucked the bite into the corner of his mouth and chewed it in a slow, circling motion.

“Oh my,” he breathed softly. “Oh that is wonderful. That is truly wonderful.”

Annie smiled in approval.

“But how can it be so fresh? You’ve only been gone a minute.”

“Hmm, trade secret,” Annie shrugged knowingly.

“Please, corporate nonsense doesn’t fit a place like this.”

“Well this is a business, you know?”

“No, this is dinner at family,” Howie averred solemnly. “Go on. It’s not as if an old gruff like me, who can’t tell a pot from a pan, is going to put your place out of business!”

Annie glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her voice confidentially. “Well…if you must know…what the cook does is he puts a whole pie in the oven, but sets the heat just as low as he can. It cooks, but it takes it a full three hours. Any time someone orders the pie he cuts out a single slice, transfers it over to his ‘hot’ oven, and finishes it in just a minute or two. Going slow you get all the flavor steeped through, all the texture turned soft, but finishing fast you seal it all up and give it that nice caramelization.”

Howie laughed and clapped his hands in admiration, then set to taking his next bite. Annie brought him the check, and ten minutes later he was on his way out the door, though not without a hefty amount of lingering chit-chat with everyone he passed along the way.

At last he settled down in his old ford, turned the engine over, and sat still while the radio came on. It was an old western ballad, and he hummed along to the familiar tune as he popped open the glove box and pulled out his notebook. Propping it against the steering wheel he transferred all of the information from his phone message to this more comfortable medium. Then he flicked back and forth through the most recent pages of the notebook, the ones detailing his latest job.

“Bay View Motel,” he muttered to himself, then looked out of his car window. In a town as small as this, there was a decent chance you could find whatever your next destination was just by peering around.

Behind him was the highway, less than a tenth of a mile distant. Traffic was so infrequent that the noise didn’t present a nuisance to the shops and businesses that the turn-off led to. Among them was Del’s Diner, a gas station, a small grocery, and a cozy motel that was not Bay View. At the end of the diner’s parking lot was a junction onto another street, down which Howie could see the sign of the local lawyer, an auto repair, and a two-floor building with a sign that was mostly obscured by a scrubby tree. What little bit he could make out, though, looked like a wave crashing on a beach.

“Bay View,” he guessed, and turned on the ignition. Thirty seconds later his suspicion was affirmed and he pulled into the parking lot, his wheels crunching over the unpaved gravel.

No wonder it was the other motel that faced the highway. This one was a low and mean looking place, with large brown stains baked into its peeling siding, and boarded windows on rooms that were in a state of constant disrepair.

Howie took a moment to fully take in his surroundings. He noted the rickety staircase that went from the first floor of the motel to the upper, the way that some of the doors inexplicably opened outwards into the narrow path instead of inwards to their rooms, and the way that the only camera present was pointed at the main office’s front doors. That office, he observed, was being manned by a teenage boy, clearly not the manager of the place.

He reached into the glove box and took out a piece of hard candy, popped it into his mouth and slowly sucked it down. Once he would have lit a cigarette, but ten years ago he knew he had to quit. What mattered was to have something to occupy him long enough to really take a good, hard, second look. Rushing things was never the right way.

So he scanned everything again, this time rehearsing his future steps in his mind. Door 27 was four rooms from the west staircase. A car parked at the bottom of that staircase–front pointed out of the parking lot–would be able to make the highway in less than three minutes. Maybe less than two.

Four rooms from the west staircase meant four opportunities for someone to come bolting out into the walkway and becoming an obstruction. A firm shove with his left arm would be enough to quell the curious, and his right hand would grip a more imperative persuasion for anyone who wanted to play the hero.

The west staircase meant he would be on the opposite end from the office, far from the lone security camera. He had already verified that there was no local sheriff’s office, so no one in an official capacity would be on the scene for at least fifteen minutes. And fifteen minutes was enough to make it down to Hogswell, a town large enough to lay low, but small enough that no one should be out to see him rolling in at two in the morning.

Satisfied, Howie stepped out of his car, went to the trunk, and pulled out his bag of tools. He clipped a nametag to his shirt, put on workman’s gloves, a baseball hat, and thick-rimmed glasses. His razor was in the front of the car, so he’d shave off his mustache when he got to Hogswell.

Now he strode up to the front office, the bell on the door ringing dully as he came to the teenage boy at the front desk.

“Hey, how can I help you?” the boy rehearsed.

“Call for a bathroom leak?” Howie pointed to his nametag.

“What?”

“Call this morning. Came from a Jerry,” he read the name of the manager off a plaque hanging from the wall, “said there was a leak in one of the bathrooms. Asked if I’d be able to make it in the morning and I said I’d try,” he shrugged abashedly, “but I never know when the previous appointment is going to be ten minutes or two hours. Today it was the two hours, for Miss Maislee down the street. I could swear she tried to flush a cat down her pipes!”

“Who?”

“Deidre Maislee?”

“Oh, the lady from the diner?”

“Sure kid, I dunno where she works. Course you never know if a client is a yapper or a go-brooding-in-their-corner-while-you-work sort of person. Deidre is a go-off-to-her-corner. Suits me, I don’t need to know the secret life of a cat-homicide-maniac.”

“What, it can’t have really been a cat!”

“Well the way things run in pipes, half the time you can’t really tell what they originally were. So that means either you’re devoid of imagination and tell yourself its just a clump of hair, or you start anticipating the more colorful side of people. And let me tell you, it doesn’t take that much imagination to start seeing crimes everywhere in people’s pipes. Most people think their plumbing is a private place where no one will find the worst of their secrets,” he raised an eyebrow solemnly.

“Huh, like what?” the boy grinned.

Good. The kid was bored. After five minutes of Howie satiating him with horror stories and the boy finally got around to asking which room it was that needed plumbing.

Howie was led to the room, and then left to do his “work.” He rummaged about in the bathroom for a minute, until he was sure that the kid was truly gone, then he went over to the front door of the motel room, pulled out his screwdriver, and removed the plate around the doorknob. Now came the process of extracting the door-lock mechanism. He would take out the deadbolt, then put everything back the same as it was before.

It was a fortunate thing that the man currently renting this room wasn’t here right now. If he had been Howie would have had to ask him about the leak in the bathroom, and when he denied it Howie would have had to feign frustration at having been given the wrong information. Then he would have left, and things would have been much louder this night.

It was delicate work on the door, but Howie was practiced at it. He got the deadbolt out and also the tumbler in the doorknob, so that neither lock could work. He replaced the deadbolt with a custom-made one. It had been sawed short so that it wouldn’t actually extend into the door frame, but it would provide a similar weighty “click” when you tried to lock the door. He also put a pin in the doorknob so that it would stop when you twisted that lock, rather than spin freely. If someone looked closely, they would notice that neither lock was actually catching, but most people never would.

His work done, Howie grabbed his bag and left the room. He didn’t take the gloves off until he was settled back in the car. Now he just had one more errand to run, and then he would make himself scarce until the middle of the night.

Part Two
Part Three

 

As I said on Monday, this piece was inspired by my work in Washed Down the River. In that story I featured two inspectors following a more grounded approach to detective work than is usually seen in a murder mystery. It felt fitting that this more down-to-earth story have a somewhat mundane ending, in which the exact reason for the victim’s death remain somewhat uncertain, though foul play is finally ruled out.

As such, there really wasn’t a real villain in the story, and I found myself wondering what one would have looked like. I certainly wouldn’t want some caricature, mustache-twirling, rogue. As with all of the other characters in Washed Down the River, it would have to be someone that felt grounded and believable.

I had come to mind a man in his late fifties, with a pot-belly, and a genial, southern manner. Someone that had been weathered by life, but someone who also knows how to entertain and influence people. Suddenly I wanted to write a story about this easygoing assassin, and detail how he moseys about a sleepy town, enjoying the local hospitality, before then committing the most unspeakable of crimes in its borders.

Detectives Price and Daley will not show up in any part of this story. If ever their paths did cross with Howie Stuggs, it would have to be in an all-new chapter. And yet the story of those detective directly paved the way for this tale of a criminal who might exist in their world. It is the fruit of their tree, just as they were the fruit of the many other murder mysteries I’ve consumed over the years.

Now in this story I wanted things to go very easy and slow. I even opened it up by detailing a meal in a diner for quite a while, which meal has absolutely nothing to do with the real plot of the story. Yet I felt that that scene was completely essential in how it established tone and character. At the same time, I’ve read more than enough stories that were over-indulgent in unnecessary “character-development” scenes. I’d like to take a closer look at what it is that makes a scene actually add depth to a story, and what it is that makes it useless fluff. Come back on Monday where we explore that, and then on Thursday we’ll see the next chapter of Howie’s tale.

Reflecting an Idea

woman holding mirror against her head in the middle of forest
Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

Tangential Stories)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie, and even as you were taking in the story being presented, you also started thinking of an entirely new tale ? A new story that took one of the elements of the first, but then ran with it in a completely different direction? It might not be a very large element either, it might be the smallest of ideas. In either case, you would have the urge to grow a tree from the roots of another.

The first time I can recall having this experience was when I was thirteen and watching Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Not exactly a timeless classic, but still able to make an impact once or twice.

The scene that arrested my imagination takes place after Anakin Skywalker has fully turned himself over to the Dark Side, purged the Temple he once called home, dispatched all of the Separatist leaders in a tormented lava planet called Mustafar, and at last pauses there to await further orders. There is a brief moment of him looking over the burning rock, totally alone in the world, his every bridge to his past life burned. The music swells with a tragic chorus, and though he does not show remorse, he hardly looks happy in his new life.

I saw that scene, and my thirteen-year-old self was deeply moved. I thought to myself “Oh wow, it’s over for him.” I imagined that if I were in his shoes I would be experiencing a moment of quiet reflection, and I would be having deep misgivings about the steps I had just made. But what good could misgivings do any more? At this point, Anakin can never go home. There is no apologizing for crimes such as these. Though he might have believed in his cause in the moment, he must surely be weighed down now by all the good that he left behind, all the things that are forever lost. He has become a new creature, alone and apart.

As it turns out, the film never actually explored those themes. In fact Anakin is shown to naively believe that he still can have all the good things from before, and that those he loves will somehow be accepting of his choices. And so, since the film never gave expression to the things that I had been feeling, I found myself trying to imagine a plot that did.

This led me to conceiving of an entirely new story, one where a lowly, everyday man would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in a moment of haste make a choice that forever changes his life. Though he would dearly wish to return to his previous life, to would be impossible to do so.

However I couldn’t stop at these overall themes, I felt driven to flesh it out with world building, narrative style, and thematic tone. Though I never did actually write the story, I envisioned a strange science fiction piece, one that would take place on an alien planet. Upon that world’s surface entire cities would float on massive vessels, and the inhabitants would be extremely dry-skinned, only partially humanoid, and have a vast number of strange customs and rituals. I knew that they would measure their world by running lines out into the water as they churned over it, and that they would preserve their ideas on Rubik’s Cube-esque devices, where you could rotate different sections to rearrange the words and thus discover new chapters of text. I knew that my main character would be entirely content with the small confines of his city-world, until he inadvertently broke the delicate balance and perhaps even destroyed his entire floating city.

And the whole thing felt absolutely nothing like Star Wars, from which all of its core ideas had originally arisen. An entire world, species, and plot from nothing more than a stray scene in a film, one that didn’t even take its story in the direction that I thought it was going.

 

Homage, or Something Entirely New?)

For an interpretation to grow until it becomes an entirely different beast from its progenitor is not a new idea. In fact…Star Wars itself is an example of this!

George Lucas shared that his original vision came about after seeing the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (Kurowasa, of course, was no stranger to having his Japanese stories reinvented by numerous Western filmmakers). What stood out to Lucas was the idea of two bumbling side characters embroiled in the epic of others.

From that initial seed Lucas created two new bumblers in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, he preserved the plot hook of a princess needing to be saved, and he still had a veteran warrior leading the party. But otherwise Lucas’s story treads entirely different ground. The story is set in an alien galaxy, the central focus is moved to a more traditional hero, the themes become mythical, and even spiritual, and the plot revolves around rescuing the soul of a wayward father. Star Wars can hardly be considered a remake, or even an interpretation of The Hidden Fortress, and yet the seed of its first idea did come from there.

And from Star Wars came the seed of my own little story idea as well. Thus one story lights the spark of another, which lights the spark of another.

In fact, it has been argued that there is no truly original work in any creative medium whatsoever. It is very hard to think of plots to stories or notes to a song without having the mind inundated with all the similar approaches that have been done before. In the process of writing my recent murder mystery, it was inevitable that flashes of every other murder mystery I have ever experienced would pass through my mind. Indeed, where did the idea to even write such a story come from, if not because I first got the notion from the work of others?

Yet my story was still a unique creation. Or at the very least, a unique amalgamation of other diverse creations, just as a child is derived from two others, yet is a new creature all their own.

 

Interestingly, there was a small kernel of Washed Down the River that also inspired an entirely new tale to me. My own work suggested to me a new character and a new plot that could exist within the world of the first. I’d like to continue to extend that branch out a bit further, and on Thursday I will post the new/not-so-new creation.

Washed Down the River: Part Six

colorful painted buildings
Photo by Raul Juarez on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

It took everyone a moment to process what Daley had just done.

“Where did you get those?” Maria breathed, her face as white as a sheet.

“I went walking by your place today and saw that your caretaker had brought out the trash…with these in it. Mexican law states that anything abandoned through the garbage system does not require a warrant to acquire and is admissible as evidence in court.”

Price gawked at Daley. He wasn’t sure exactly how many lies his friend had just uttered, but he said it all with such a straight face that Maria didn’t question the matter any further, she just slowly shuffled back towards her seat. Price used the moment to grab the box and inspect it closely. “.45 ACP,” he observed, “just like the gun Otto used. Only…” he lifted one of the bullets and peered at it closely, “they’re blanks.”

“Yes, they’re blanks,” Maria said softly.

“So you were helping Otto out with some fake-suicide plan?”

“Yes…I’m–I’m sorry that I lied to you detectives.”

“Oh don’t be,” Daley said. “Actually it’s very helpful for us. Let’s us know we’re going the right direction. But how about you tell us what actually happened now?”

Maria nodded and swallowed. “Well, it was just like you said. He wanted to get out of his marriage, but not lose all of his wealth in the process. So he told me about his scheme to fake his suicide and run out of the country. He was sure that if the police found a purchase record of the gun and ammunition, but could never actually retrieve them or the body, then no one would ever suspect a thing.”

Daley raised his eyebrows at Price. Price coolly ignored him.

“I want to make something clear,” Maria added earnestly. “I never liked this plan. I always thought it was dangerous and stupid!… But…Otto was set on it. More and more, with each passing day. It was clear I wasn’t going to change his mind, so…yes, I helped him to set it up.”

“So how did you help him?” Price gently prodded.

“He went to pick out the gun, bought it with his credit card. Then he gave me the card and cash to buy the bullets for him the next day.”

“Card and cash?”

“Card for the real bullets, so they would show up on the bill, and cash for the blanks so there wouldn’t be anything to tie them to his name. He also wanted them from different stores so that a store clerk couldn’t remember both being bought in the same transaction.”

“Why didn’t he buy the real bullets at the same time as the gun? Why leave you to get those?”

She shook her head in frustration. “He was being stupidly particular about it. He had this little narrative in his head of what you detectives would piece together. ‘Oh look, he got the gun on a Thursday, but the bullets on Friday…he must have been gradually working up his nerve for it.’ Silly things like that.”

“Okay, so you bought both sets of bullets the next day, from two different stores.”

“Yes. Soon we met up and I gave him both sets, then took an airplane back to Mexico. He didn’t want me to fly back too soon to when he would fake the suicide, in case that would look suspicious,” she rolled her eyes. “And I took with me the box of blanks, so it wouldn’t turn up as evidence. Though really it was supposed to be the real bullets, but in the blanks’ box. You see he was supposed to switch them during our last visit. The ‘real’ box with the blanks in it and the ‘blanks’ box with the real bullets in it. He would load all of the blanks into the gun on the morning of his birthday, then leave the empty ‘real bullets’ box where it could be found.”

“Did something go wrong with that switch? The box from your place is still filled with the blanks.”

“Obviously something went wrong,” Maria’s eyes moistened. “But I don’t know what…or how…”

“Hmm,” Price rubbed his forehead. They’d come so far, but perhaps this last conundrum was a secret Otto had taken with him to the grave. It didn’t seem that–

“Before you met with Otto and showed him the bullets, did you open the boxes? Look at the ammunition and do something with them?” Daley spoke up quickly.

“What? No. He handled that by himself.”

“But that’s not true,” Daley sighed, he reached into the same coat pocket from which he had taken the box of blanks. Now he extracted a plastic bag, presumably the one that had held the box. Squinting, he pinched at something stuck to the bag, reached out with thumb and forefinger, and stuck a small piece of clear tape to the side of the box of blanks. Then he did the same thing again with a tan piece of tape.

“Both boxes were taped shut,” Daley stated, “and you have both pieces of tape in your bag. You opened them before you gave them to Otto.”

Once again Price tried to not gawk at his friend. It was an incredibly bold statement, one that Maria could easily deny. There might be any number of reasons how that tape would have turned up in her bag. Now that Daley had made the claim, though, Price realized that Maria had indeed glossed over the details of how the bullet-swap had occurred.

Maria sighed and lowered her forehead into her palm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I keep lying to you detectives.”

Daley pursed his lips, as if weighing whether to say what was on his mind. Eventually he ventured forward. “Honestly, the fact that you did lie is even more telling than the fact that you opened the boxes. It means there’s something you feel guilty about with that. I’m sorry, but we really need to know what it is.”

“I swapped the bullets before I met with Otto. I put the real bullets in the blanks box and the blanks in the ‘real bullets’ box. I just wanted to be sure for myself that I was leaving with the live ammunition. When I met with Otto I handed him only the box with the blanks inside and said ‘it’s all ready.’ He asked to see both boxes, to make sure everything was right. Then he asked me to get him a rag from the kitchen–we were at his house–so that he could wipe off my fingerprints. When I came back he had just finished loading the gun and handed me back the box you found today. I had a really weird feeling, but I didn’t understand it then. I think a part of me realized that he might have misunderstood what I meant by ‘it’s all ready,’ and had just performed the swap himself–”

“And ended up putting the real bullets back into the gun.”

“But I didn’t think to ask him about it. He was being so very assertive and sure. He told me to rehearse my next steps so he could be certain I hadn’t forgotten any, then hurried me out. I just– I think I just didn’t want to make him upset by questioning what he clearly had under control.”

“And you didn’t want to tell us because you were afraid we would think you had somehow set the wrong bullets up for him on purpose.”

“Sometimes I think…maybe he didn’t misunderstand me. Maybe towards the end he really did want to go through with it, and he sent me away so that I wouldn’t see him swapping the bullets back. But then I think maybe I’m being paranoid, an honest mistake seems so plausible.”

“Or maybe he wasn’t sure what he even wanted,” Daley offered softly. “Maybe he couldn’t be certain what you had meant, and found in that uncertainty an opportunity to just chose a box of bullets at random and let fate decide.”

“You think so?”

Daley shrugged. “I really have no idea.”

“Anyway, that’s what happened Detectives. I didn’t orchestrate his death, I didn’t want him to commit suicide. Somewhere along the way, though, I think I did something wrong.”

“Well I wouldn’t say that you did something right,” Price sighed. “But it’s not our job to judge what you did. We just pass the information along.” He turned to Torres and nodded. “She’s your suspect now.”

Torres thanked Price and Daley, then asked Maria to follow him out of the room. The two men were left seated side-by-side, still at the interrogation table. For a long while neither of them said anything at all. Finally it was Price who spoke.

“Well, not as simple of a case as I assumed. But maybe not quite as dramatic as you had?”

“No, but that’s alright. Mostly I just wanted to know.”

“Well…you still don’t. Not all the way.”

“No, not all the way,” Daley agreed. “Otto keeps some of the mystery to himself…. But I don’t mind. It’s alright to not know what you can’t.”

“That’s some pretty deep zen you got going on there,” Price chuckled. It was a humorless sound, though, and Daley could tell that his partner’s mind was on something else. Price was on the cusp of leaning into a more personal topic. Daley flirted with the idea of making up some excuse to stand up and walk away. But he didn’t.

“That was an interesting thing you said to her,” Price began. “About how more significant than the fact that she opened the boxes was the fact that she lied about doing it. There’s a lot of truth to that.”

“Okay.”

“When I picked you up from the grocery the other day, it was your wife who told me you were there…at the pharmacy. But when you came out you denied it.”

Silence.

“Going to a pharmacy doesn’t mean a thing, but lying about doing so? Something’s up with that.”

Daley stared ahead unblinking.

“Something else interesting that you said–back at the start of the case–something about going to the person who cares most for the suspect. You said they’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty, and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. So…I went and spoke to Marcine, James. I hope you’ll forgive me for that, and her too, because she told me about your diagnosis. She told me all about the cancer.”

Another heavy silence. Clearly now was the time for Daley to say something, but he didn’t. Awkward and trite as it sounded, Price finally had to ask “Did you want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” Daley said, and he stood and walked over to the door. But then, with his hand still on the knob, he turned his head and called over his shoulder, “but even if I don’t want to…I guess you’ve earned that right. Come on. It’s our last night in Mexico. Let’s go for a ride together and talk.”

 

Well there we have it, the end of my mystery story. I rather like how it wound up, being a compromise between both Price and Daley’s expectations. I’m also pleased with how I balanced between letting the reader interpret the scene according to their own imagination at some points, and being more explicit about what happened in others.

An example of the first would be when Daley produces the evidence he has found and Maria finally starts unveiling what actually happened. I did not want to pander to the reader by explicitly stating “she was telling the truth now,” but I also didn’t want them to think she might still be dishonest. I decided to resolve this issue by changing her manner of speech from before. On Monday I pointed out how her speech when concealing information had been short and brusque. The audience could read her deceit just in the way that she spoke.

So for today I flipped her mannerisms. I say “Maria nodded and swallowed” to signal a turning point, and then have her speak with long and flowing dialogue. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most readers will subconsciously note the change and accept that she must now be telling the truth.

But then, when Daley and Price have their private conversation at the end, I suddenly became very explicit in describing every look and pause. I tried to paint it as clearly as I could and leave as little as possible to the reader’s imagination. I would never recommend this sort of explicit control over the duration of a story, but carefully used in specific moments, it can have great effect.

The effect that I was hoping to achieve here is one of heaviness and slowness. I want the reader to feel the long, pregnant pauses, and so I describe them in detail. I felt this measure was necessary because I had just allowed the reader to breeze through a rapid-fire exchange, so something special had to be done to put on the brakes.

And as I said, I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out. In fact, while I’m finished with the plot of Detectives Price and Daley, I’d like to spend a little more time in this world and style. Sometimes one of the most exciting things about a story is the way that it can inspire new ones to us. I’d like to explore this idea of extending a theme from one tale into another. I’ll have a post about that on Monday, and then next Thursday we’ll see how I keep the spirit of Washed Down the River alive in my next short story.

The Little Details

shallow focus photo of clear ball
Photo by Anni Roenkae on Pexels.com

Same Ways to Say Different Things)

The same sentence can take on entirely different meanings, depending on its context.

“You’re a real work of art,” the painter said reverently as he etched her figure into the canvas.

“You’re a real work of art,” the officer said as he pulled the passed-out drunk to his feet.

Even under the same context, the same sentence can change, based on how the words are spoken.

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she affirmed softly.

 

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she rolled her eyes.

What is interesting about this example is that in the first instance I communicated her sincerity by describing the tone of her words directly, while in the second instance I said nothing about her intonation whatsoever, I only detailed her body language. That alone will be enough for the reader to recognize the dialogue as being sarcastic. In fact the reader is able to retroactively apply the sarcasm to the remark, and still maintain a coherent understanding as they go.

I could also try to communicate the sarcasm simply by how I italicize the words as well.

Of course you wouldn’t.”

It might work, but most likely some readers would not comprehend the sentence correctly. Though they might if the context of sarcasm had already been established.

“I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but it’s not true!” he pounded the table.

“Spoken with all the conviction of a liar.”

“I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Of course you wouldn’t.”

 

The Better Communication)

I believe most readers will agree that

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

is better than the more explicit

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically.

This matters a great deal, because a story is appreciated not only by what it says, but how it says it. Two drafts could feature the exact same plot points, the same clever twists and turns, the same characters and scenes, and even all the same words of dialogue, but if one takes the route of explicitly detailing each and every moment it will be appreciably inferior to the one which utilizes subtle implication.

But why? If the final interpretation is the same, why do we prefer one version over the other? Let’s see if we can figure it out from a different example, one that doesn’t involve any dialogue whatsoever.

The bad man pulled out his knife. He put it into the other man’s chest. The man who was stabbed bled and died.

There was a shriek of metal rubbing over metal as he flicked his wrist outwards, and a bolt of white steel reflected in the moonlight. It streaked through the shadows like a shot of lightning, and like lightning it buried itself into a larger body, burrowed deep until it found rich, red oil, and burst it out like a geyser. There was a surprised cry, and a life crumpled to the floor.

Though the first example communicates the events extremely clearly, which style would you rather read a story in? Perhaps the second one was too indirect for your tastes, but at least it doesn’t feel so juvenile as the first. And let’s pause to consider that word for a moment: juvenile.

 

Intelligent Descriptions)

When a story is over-communicated it tends to feel immature to us. It seems as though the author has no faith in their reader’s imagination, or else has no imagination of their own.

We find it immature when things are over-explained, because then there is no cognitive effort necessary on the part of the reader. Usually we like our entertainment to engage us, to suggest thoughts and ideas that extend beyond what is explicitly spelled out. If the way a story is written leaves nothing to the imagination, then we are put into an inactive state of mind.

This is why the line

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

works so well. It describes the eyes, but it suggests far more. It immediately kickstarts the reader’s imagination, for it is hard to picture her rolling eyes without also conjuring other images such as her arms crossed in front of her chest, a slight shake of her head, and of course that sarcastic lilt to her voice. The text isn’t ambiguous, we have explicitly spelled out that she is disbelieving, but the full portrayal of that disbelief is left to interpretation.

To instead write

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically

does not invite much imagination. It is possible for the reader to start thinking up little details that aren’t described, but they are not being pushed towards doing so in the same way as with the first sentence. Worst of all would be something that denied all imagination to the reader. Something like

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically. She further emphasized her feelings with a small shake of the head and her arms folded disapprovingly in front of her.

It simply paints too clear of a picture.

On Thursday I published an interrogation scene, and the suspect was extremely chagrined at the whole affair. I communicated as much with my short description of her: “She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.” From that point on I made only the occasional update on her posture and tone of voice, only to reinforce in the reader’s mind that her stance was uncooperative. Between those moments I literally let her words do the talking, absent any descriptions whatsoever. What I did do, though, was to make each of her statements extremely short and brusque. That abrasive staccato should be enough to push the reader into imagining the scene on their own.

In my next postIn my next post I will return to the story, and it is going to feature two scenes that are quite emotionally charged. My intention will be to provide the readers just what they need to infer the atmosphere of the room, but not so much that they cannot apply their own interpretations to it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Washed Down the River: Part Five

woman sitting on chair
Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“It’s for you,” Officer Torres said to Price. “I’ll carry on in here.”

Price thanked him and exited the small one-room office that was home to Guzman Charitable Services. Just outside of the room Maria sat in a chair, silently fuming, with her arms crossed so tightly that Price thought it must be painful. He ignored her, though, and went to the end of the hall where a receptionist held a receiver aloft.

“Thank you,” Price said as he took the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello, Price,” Daley’s voice came in brightly. In the background Price could hear a lot of other voices and the clinking of plates. Daley must have been calling from some diner.

“Wasn’t expecting to hear anything from you,” Price scowled, not even trying to keep the resentment out of his voice.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been watching the clock, and I figure right about now you should have gotten underway with searching Maria’s business?”

“Yes. Going to take longer without your help, of course.”

“Yes, probably an hour at least?”

It seemed a strange question. “What’s that got to do with anything?” Price asked suspiciously.

“Oh, and you have Maria there with you, of course?”

“Yes, of course. Was there any actual point to your call, Daley?”

“Um…no, that’s all. Thanks.”

And then he hung up. Price stared at the receiver in utter confusion as it slowly dawned on him: Daley wanted to be sure that Maria was being occupied for a while longer…so that he could raid her place while Torres and Price searched the office.

“Why would you tell me that?” he said numbly to the earpiece. “Why not let me live in ignorant bliss?”

“Señor?” the receptionist held her hand out for the phone.

“Sorry, never mind that. Gracias.” He handed her back the phone. She took it and then extended out a manila envelope. It was the building’s lease information on Maria’s office, which he had asked to be retrieved when they first arrived. He took it, thanked her, and made his way back down the hall.

Maria was fidgeting as he approached, struggling between her equal desire to lay her fury into him, and also to continue the indignant silent treatment she had maintained since they summoned her. Just as his steps brought him level with her the first side won out.

“Why do you choose to disbelieve me?” she snapped. “I already told you, I turned down this man’s money. Call whomever is in charge of disposing the will, they’ll tell you.”

“Oh we did, right after our chat with you. They confirmed it.”

“And?”

Price sighed. He knew he should just move on. It was more than stupid to ever discuss your reasons for suspicion with a person of interest. The directive given to all investigators was that the less you said, the less the precinct might have to apologize for. And yet…

“It’s funny how–” Price began, then snapped his mouth shut so forcefully that Maria stared back at him in shock. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he strained, then ducked for refuge into the office. What had he been thinking?! To distract himself Price pulled out the three papers from the manila envelope and examined them while walking towards Torres, who was flipping through Maria’s business ledger.

“You find anything yet?” Price asked.

“No…everything appears as it should be. She registered for the charity, paid for her license, linked it to a bank account opened in her own name…all appropriate, all without so much as a single reference to Otto Davies. I assume the office was leased in her name, too?”

Price turned the page he was reviewing to the back, then quickly again to the front. “I wonder…oh, yes she licensed it herself…but–there’s this phone record that the building kept, and…” he used his free hand to pull out his pocketbook.

“What is it?” Torres asked.

“Look at this record of the first call. My Spanish isn’t very good, what does that say?”

“Uh…’Representative for Ms Guzman querying for availability and prices.'”

“Alright, and then this phone number given here, is that the callback number that was given?”

“Yes.”

“But notice it’s different from the number given in all the other phone records.”

“Hmm, so it is. And this number is from the states.”

“Not only that, it sounds familiar to me.” Price flipped through his pocketbook until at last he found the number Mrs Davies had left to reach her at home. They matched.

“You did know Otto Davies,” Price pronounced to Maria an hour later, after the two men had finished their search. It had only been appropriate, of course, to finish gathering any additional evidence the office might have held before coming out to confront her. “He made the first call when you were looking for an office space.”

Her eyes darkened. He could see she was about to deny it, so he cut her off by extending both the phone record and his open pocketbook.

“They kept a record of this?!” Maria said incredulously.

“So it would seem. I’m sure you understand that we need to bring you with us for more questions now.”

She sighed, but stood up, resigned to follow them.

“Oh, and to answer your question from before,” Price continued. “We were suspicious of you because you turned down the money.”

*

An hour later Price and Torres were seated in the interrogation room with Maria. Right as they were about to begin, another officer poked his head in and said something that Price couldn’t understand to Torres. Torres turned to Price and relayed it in English.

“Your friend is waiting at the receptionist’s desk. He wants to come join us.”

Price sighed. “Would you mind?”

Torres turned to the officer and asked for Daley to be brought in. Two minutes later he arrived and took a seat next to Price. Then the three men focused on Maria, who was sitting on the opposite side of the table. She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.

“Please tell us the nature of your relationship with Otto Davies,” Price said gently.

“We were…close,” Maria said haltingly. “I met him in the states while at a bar about…eight months ago.”

“Please, go on,” Price encouraged after it was clear she had finished speaking. Sometimes it was good to leave it to a suspect’s own imagination where they were supposed to fill in the details.

“Well, so, his family had no knowledge of me. He was…a very miserable man. Not happy at home.”

“Did he ever talk about leaving his ‘not happy’ home?”

“Perhaps he would say something angry like that in passing. But never anything serious about it.”

“Or about ending his life?”

“No, of course not,” for the first time some genuine sadness seemed to creep into Maria’s face.

“What did you want him to do?”

She shrugged. “That was never my decision to make.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“Well, then I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

“Why did he help you setup the charity?”

“Just…thought it would be something good for me to do.”

“According to the books in your office your charity hasn’t done anything, well, charitable in the three months since you founded it.”

“I’m still trying to secure funding for my initiatives.”

“Which also are not clearly spelled out anywhere. The only thing resembling a charter that I can find is the line you filled out when you applied for your license…’to help the poor of the city.'”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“You don’t think that is a worthy cause?” she returned.

“Well if you are lacking funding, then it would seem the money Otto tried to leave you in his will would have gone a long way to help. Why did you really reject that?”

“Obviously to avoid the scandal.”

“Oh his family felt plenty scandalized anyway.”

Maria looked down at her feet. Daley used the opportunity to look sideways at Price and slowly raise a finger, signalling that he would like to speak. He had a shy, but winning smile, like a boy who is in trouble but asking for a new toy even so. Price’s didn’t try to withhold the disdain from his face. Daley had enjoyed taking Price down a peg or two that very morning, but now he was in an official interrogation room and knew that Price could deny him any access to the case whatsoever. So now he would smile, now he would be polite, and do whatever it took to satisfy his curiosity. Price entertained the thought of throwing Daley out right then and there…but though he hated to admit it, he genuinely did want to hear what Daley was so anxious to bring to the table. So he rolled his eyes and shook his head in a long-suffering way, but then waved his hand for Daley to proceed.

“Mmm,” Daley cleared his throat. “Ms Guzman, surely you can see that things aren’t quite adding up for us. The notion that you didn’t want to upset his family feels…weak.”

“You think I would want to profit from the death of the man I loved?!” she spat out.

“See, now, that would have been a much more convincing answer…if it had been the first one you had given. It feels to us like you’re making up answers–thinking of better and better ones as you go, I’ll admit–because there’s something you’re still trying to hide.”

Maria’s eyes went wide and her nostrils went narrow. Price genuinely felt uncomfortable being in the same room as her, but at least Daley was finally getting a reaction. That was something. In any case, words failed her, so Daley simply plowed on ahead.

“Now what would you have to hide? Well, let’s consider the situation. Otto Davies was miserable with his life. You claim he had never voiced an intention to leave it, one way or another, but whether that’s true or not, we still know that he was miserable. Add to that fact that he helped you to setup a charity, only a matter of weeks before he changed his will to send all his wealth to that charity. Any idea why he would do that?”

Maria’s lips remained pursed, so still Daley continued.

“Here’s a theory, then. If Otto had simply left his family, then the prenuptial agreements would have been executed, which sharply favored his wife. But he knew there was a chance to still cut her out through his will, though it would be unlikely for that will to be honored if it left everything to his mistress! But if he left it to a charity? Suddenly Otto’s reasons for helping you to set this business up seem pretty obvious, don’t they? I guess the only question is whether you shared in those plans?”

No answer.

“No really, Ms Guzman,” Price interjected. “We do need you to respond to that.”

She paused, picking her next words very carefully. “I was not aware of any intention like that. It was not my intention.”

“Yes, well, if you did share any such intention it would be difficult for you to admit it,” Daley nodded. “Because then you’d be afraid that we would accuse you of being complicit in his suicide.”

“If that had been my intention, then why would I turn down the money? I did that before there were ever police attached to the matter.”

“Ah, well done, that is a very good point,” Daley thumped the table. “And you are absolutely right, it wouldn’t make any sense that way. So it must be just as you say: that if he helped you setup the charity with the intention to leave you the money after his suicide, then you, at least, were never aware of such a plan and never would have approved of it.”

“At last you’re talking sense.”

“Unless…of course, the suicide was never actually the real plan. Perhaps there was another strategy that you were involved in…one that wasn’t supposed to end in Otto’s death. One that you still don’t want to tell us about.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Perhaps he only wanted to stage a suicide and slip away to Mexico? He could live with you off of the wealth he funneled into your fake-charity, and no one would ever come looking because, well, he was ‘dead.’ Maybe that was a plan you would have been able to accept, one you would even help him to set up. But then…he actually did die, and whether out of fear or guilt, you tried to wash your hands of the entire thing.”

“I am finished here,” Maria hissed. “I will not be insulted anymore.”

“Did you help Otto buy bullets for his gun?”

“Just stop!” Maria stood up and started towards the door. Torres glanced nervously at Price, wondering if he was going to intervene. “Of course I didn’t!” she cried as she reached for the knob.

“That’s a lie.” Daley reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and slammed it down on the table. It was a box of bullets.

Part Six

 

On Monday I spoke about stories that are sensational and stories that are grounded. I discussed how this mystery story has featured a little bit of each. Price is grounded in the realities of life as a detective, constrained by all the mundane elements of paperwork and red tape. Daley meanwhile is free to chase a more idealized version, a game that is stripped of all the rules. Each of these perspectives shade the story, and mix across it in ways that are hopefully interesting.

At the start of the interrogation Price is direct and procedural. He asks clearly defined questions, and he receives short, unhelpful answers in reply. The process is slow and uninteresting. Then Daley has his turn and things quickly become heated, long-winded, and spiraling out of control. It even ends with a dramatic flourish at the end because that’s the sort of story Daley is trying to make this into: a sensational one.

Something else I wanted to point from this piece was how I wrote all of Maria’s responses to be extremely brief. The intention is to build up a sense of terseness, even before any adjectives are employed. This ability to imply details is something that I’m still learning how to utilize, and would like to dive into more deeply with my next post. Come back on Monday where we consider the ways authors can make dialogue self-descriptive, and then on Thursday we’ll have the conclusion to our mystery.

Update on My Novel: Month 11

black pen near white printer paper
Photo by lalesh aldarwish on Pexels.com

 

MARCH STATS

Days Writing: 18
New Words: 5244
New Chapters: 1.75

Total Word-count: 38,857
Total Chapters: 10.75

After getting no novel work done in February it felt very refreshing to dive back into it with March. I had intended to write for 22 days of the month, and only ended up with 18, but overall I would say it was a successful return to form.

Based on my estimates I am now one-third of the way through the draft and I very much feel the sense of being in the middle of my work. During the first chapters I was able to feel my work adding up with each day’s efforts, and I anticipate that towards the end I’ll be able to feel the conclusion looming nearer and nearer. But when you sail from one shore to another, there is inevitably that time in between where you perceive little change at all. You might have moved to a different part of open the ocean, but it still just feels like the same, old open ocean.

That’s why writing my story has to be about the journey, and not just the destination. Each chapter needs to be compelling to write for its own sake, no matter where it leaves me in the overall project. Not only will that make for a better writing experience, but a better reading one as well.

For April I hope to write for 22 days again, we’ll see how that turns out. If I do, I would expect to land about halfway through the twelfth chapter. Come back on May 1st to hear if I managed that or not.