The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Very good,” Reis said. “We’re each the other’s master, so equal partners. Are Beesk and Inol’s stones still up in their towers?”

“Yes. But like I said, I’m in an alliance with them already.”

“So what’s your plan? Topple everyone else first and then the three of you fight to see who wins?”

“Something like that.”

“You don’t really expect them to be that honest, do you? They’re expecting you to be loyal, so that just incentives them to get the jump on you early.”

“Good thing I’ll have you to protect me then.”

Reis rolled his eyes. “Whatever, we’re wasting time. You want to leave them for later, fine. They’re not the real threat anyway.”

“Golu.”

Reis nodded. “Come on.”

The two boys turned towards the heart of the maze and made their way forward. They ran while stooped down low, so as to not be seen by the others. At every junction they paused and scouted all of the paths for any ongoing battles.

“Shouldn’t we have come across some of them by now?” Tharol hissed after they passed their third turn without hearing so much as a distant footfall.

“This is a unique contest,” Reis muttered. “Everyone’s scheming. We had a few scuffles at the very start–I knocked out Bovik–but otherwise I think everyone is scrapping for the best alliance they can manage.”

“Strange that we haven’t even seen Beesk and Inol coming back for me yet.”

“Yes, very strange,” Reis didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Alright, Golu’s tower is just down from here: past the next two junctions, take a right, and it’s right in front of us. I think we sprint the rest of the way. You still have my crystal tucked away somewhere safe?”

“Of course.”

“Alright. Go!”

They stopped crouching and ran at full speed. Down one narrow passage, past the first junction, down the next narrow passage, abreast the second junction…

Wham!

Tharol only saw a blur rushing at him from the side, then was reeling heels over head, side throbbing from a powerful blow. He came to a rest, belly down in the dirt.

“Up! Up! Up!” Reis shouted, grabbing Tharol’s shoulders and giving a tug. He had to let go all of a sudden, though, ducking away from another vicious swing!

Tharol numbly rolled to the side, then laboriously pushed himself back to his feet. Avro, Janeao, and Inol were rushing at them from each direction, staffs whirling dangerously. Beesk was nowhere to be seen, he must have already been knocked down.

The three assailants put all of their focus on Reis, systematically pushing him back towards the nearest wall. As with the last contest, the youth made a valiant effort to block, parry, and dodge each jab, but of course there was only so much he could do.

“Tharol…” he muttered through grit teeth. “Any time you feel like helping…”

Tharol shook himself out of his daze and lunged forward. Janeao saw the motion and turned to cross staffs.

Janeao was the largest and the strongest of all the boys. Even if he didn’t have the finesse of a swordsman, he was still able to brute-strength his way through most encounters. Not only that, but he could see that Tharol was compromised, crouching slightly to protect his tender side. So Janeao launched into a quick flurry of attacks, forcing Tharol to retreat, further and further, until he was also backed into a wall.

Janeao stepped into Tharol’s space, crowding out any room to manuever. He lifted his staff high and swung down with all his might. Without room to dodge or parry Tharol could only block, and he didn’t have enough power to fully stop the blow, only to absorb some of its strength before it still came crashing down on his shoulder. Janeao immediately drew his staff back out and thrust with all his strength from the side. Again Tharol blocked half of the blow, but still took a powerful knock in his ribs. He couldn’t take much more of this. He would have to do something bold.

Janeao lifted his staff higher than ever, twisting the rough wood between his palms, readying for a finishing blow. But before he could swing down Tharol dropped his own staff, let it clatter to his feet, and shot his bare hand forward, administering a single, controlled punch to the throat.

Janeao coughed and clutched his hands to his neck, dropping his staff as well. Tharol grabbed the length out of the air and administered a quick blow to the side of the Janeao’s helmet. Janeao obligingly dropped to the ground, out for the rest of the competition.

Tharol moved forward to help Reis, but apparently just being relieved of Janeao’s attacks had been enough for Reis to handle the others. He was drawing his staff back from a blow to Avro’s belly, who doubled up and fell to the ground beside Inol.

“Oh wow,” Tharol breathed.

“You took Janeao down on your own?” Reis grinned. “Nice job!”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“No, really. I thought you’d be out for sure!”

“Let’s just take care of Golu,” Tharol strode past, not even dignifying Reis’s backhanded compliment with a response. “He should be the only one left now.”

“And then what do you think will happen?”

Tharol paused, then slowly turned back to face Reis.

“Then you and I fight.”

“Or I could just take you out now and then Golu…. Saves me from having to worry that you’ll hit me in the back of the head somewhere along the way.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Well maybe you should, Tharol. No wonder you always lose these competitions!”

“Golu’s the best fencer of us all. Even better than you, slightly.”

Reis winced, but didn’t disagree.

“So your best chance is for the two of us to take him together,” Tharol continued. “And then settle things between us. And while it’s a long shot that’s my best chance, too. We’re united by a common interest, to say nothing of the fact that we’ve got each other’s crystal. I order you to not attack me until Golu is down.”

“And I order you to rescind that order,” Reis rolled his eyes, strolling down the path and towards Golu’s tower. “Come on. I’ll show you my plan, it’s better.”

Together the two of them reached the edge of the narrow passage and crouched at the mouth of the miniature valley beyond. Golu’s tower was nestled in the center of the clearing.

“Alright, there he is standing guard,” Reis observed. “I guess he figured he’d just wait out all the rest of the fighting and deal with any survivors at the end.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“No it’s not. He’s fresh and rested while we’ve been exerting ourselves for the last quarter hour. That–combined with the fact that I’m still worried you’ll get wise and hitting me in the back of the head during our battle–has got me thinking we’re better off splitting up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at that shelf running up the side there. The lip of it is near enough to his tower that you should be able to jump the gap while I keep him preoccupied down below.”

Tharol felt his heart sink.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Looks a bit far to me.”

“Well I might be the better swordsman, but you’ve always been the acrobat. So it needs to be you.”

“No. I don’t like this plan.”

“It’s perfect. A pincer movement. It’ll make Golu distracted between two threats, giving me a fighting chance against him. If I knock him out then we win, if you make it to the crystal we win.”

“Unless I miss the jump and fall.”

“Yeah, well…don’t do that. And think of it this way. If you manage to get the crystal before I knock him out then he’s under your command. The two of you together will easily overpower me and you’ll win. This is the best chance you have to win the whole thing.”

Tharol hadn’t considered that. It was a very good point…. Too good of a point.

“What are you playing at?” he asked suspiciously.

“Huh?”

“There’s some trick you’re not telling me.”

“Come on, Tharol, you can trust me.”

“No. There’s something that you’ve done. What is it?!”

Reis couldn’t hide a slight smile.

“What? The crystal swap?” Tharol reached to his side and drew out the stone that Reis had surrendered to him. He turned it over and over in his hands, and as he did felt something rough pass under his fingers. He moved his hand away and looked closely.

Apparently Master Palthio had inscribed each of the crystals with the name of the boy who owned it. And the one Tharol held said “Bovik.”

So that was it.

Reis had knocked Bovik out at the start of the match and given that boy’s crystal to Tharol instead. Reis’s own crystal must still be perfectly safe back at his own tower. Tharol kicked himself inwardly, wondering why he hadn’t followed his instincts! He shouldn’t have ever made any bargain with Reis! Should have fought him as soon as he saw him. But now…

“Well now you see, Tharol,” Reis sighed. “You’ve already lost and you don’t have any choice in the matter. I order you to go and jump for that crystal. Capture it and bring it to me…or at the very least provide a good enough distraction that I can lay Golu flat on his back.”

Tharol grit his teeth…but there was nothing he could do anymore. He had been defeated and he would have to jump.

Together the two boys turned to face down the valley again. Golu had spotted them now and was spinning his staff menacingly. Reis counted down from three and then each boy rushed forward, split apart, and began their pincer movement.

Tharol’s side burned from the blows he had received in the previous scuffle. He knew it would be a hard jump, even on a good day, let alone now that he was weary and hurt. There wasn’t any way that he could make this.

But then Reis would win. Not in the sense of the competition, Tharol was already been beaten there, but in the sense of totally humiliating Tharol. Tharol wasn’t sure why, but he was certain Reis had sent him up here as a taunt, to force him to do something that he would fail at. Tharol wasn’t about to let him have that satisfaction.

He picked up his pace, raced up the ledge, each step propelling him higher and higher, closer and closer to the edge. He saw the lip directly ahead now, saw Reis and Golu fighting twenty feet below, Golu glancing from the corner of his eye to see what Tharol was doing.

Just as Tharol’s foot reached the lip he heard Master Palthio’s voice in his head.

“And you will attempt that jump…and you will fail.”

Tharol sprang out into the void. Immediately he knew he wasn’t going to make it. In fact he only made it halfway before he was already dropping too low to clear the tower’s edge. He crashed into the side of the tower instead, flailed his arms wildly, then dropped all the way to the earth. A sickening crack rang out and he knew that his foot had broken. Overcome by pain he dropped to his back and groaned long and loud through clasped teeth.

For a moment all was pain and embarrassment. Yet somehow, even amidst the flood of pain and shame, he was cognizant enough to hear the thud of Golu being dropped to the ground. Reis had got in a concussive blow thanks to Tharol’s distraction.

“Auuuuuugh!” Tharol opened his mouth and shouted out, slamming his fists into the ground. Hot tears splashed across his cheeks. His agony actually had much less to do with the pain and much more to do with the humiliation. He had been played. Hard. And he had had no way to prevent it, even when he had been watching for it. He hated to lose to Reis again. Hated to be so foolishly dragged into his own demise. It didn’t seem to matter how careful or clever he tried to be, Reis was always two steps ahead, just as Master Palthio had said.

Speaking of Master Palthio, the master now approached, having rushed all the way from his tower to see if his students were alright. He drew near to Tharol and raised both hands over him, closed his eyes in concentration, and magically repaired the broken foot. Tharol’s fists unclenched and he gave a sigh of relief. The dull ache still persisted, but at least the spikes of pain shooting up his leg had subsided.

“I didn’t make the jump, Master,” Tharol said bitterly.

“No…. I made sure you wouldn’t.”

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I spoke of different forms of communication in a story and emphasized how even scenes of action can convey character development and plot. With today’s chapter I tried to showcase this by dragging Tharol through a gauntlet of one setback after another. Where the previous competition felt relatively lighthearted and fun, this one has blows that land with more earnestness.

For example, last time Tharol knocked out Beesk entirely by accident when he happened to spin around at exactly the right moment. Though that was technically a violent act, it was played off in a way that was meant to feel comical, even slapstick. Today, though, Janeao rains one blow on Tharol after another with genuine, vicious intent. This isn’t a game anymore. Janeao is trying to hurt him.

And last time Reis laid out a trap that Tharol happily stepped into, losing the match for himself and his team. This time Reis actually takes control over Tharol, maneuvers him against his will, and leads him into breaking his own leg. It feels a lot more personal.

It is apparent that there is a lot of ill will seething underneath the surface. The boys are playing out their very real frustrations against each other and drawing very real lines in the sand. As we will see in the next scene, the hostility that broke out in this competition remains in full force off of the field, too.

Before we get to that, though, I want to examine the reason why I am isolating Tharol here before the end. As it turns out, this is a very common pattern in stories: the hero who loses all of their support, requiring them to walk the final chapter on their own. On Monday I’ll take a look at a few of the many, many examples of this and consider why it is so effective as a plot device. Come back to read about it then.

Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.

“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.

Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”

‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!

Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!

Flip the Script)

In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.

One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.

The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.

And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.

Drama, character, and passion. All of these combine to make this less a scene of action as a scene of catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are utilizing those elements as a very effective portrayal of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.

Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.

The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.

This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.

Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.

It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.

Variety in Communication)

It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.

In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.

This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“So you let Beesk go and speak to her on his own?” Reis raised an eyebrow.

“Yes…well…I figured that way we’d see Beesk’s true colors,” Tharol explained. “Based on whether he gave an honest report or not.”

“Well of course he didn’t.”

“No, you’re right. He didn’t. When he came back to us he said the woman had made a passionate speech about being an outcast from a far-off nation, who needed to meet with our district lord to see if he could aid her in a campaign of reclamation. She asked whether Beesk could set up an audience for her with Lord Amathur, but Beesk told her he couldn’t. He suggested that Master Palthio might be able to do so, though, and if she wanted she could call at the gate and speak with him. She sighed like she didn’t think much of that, which he thought was strange, and then just went on her way.”

Reis laughed derisively. “Beesk expects us to believe she wanted to speak privately with him just to give a sob story?”

“I don’t think he cares if we believe him or not. Just so long as we can’t prove what really happened. Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless he confides in me. That’s the other reason I let him go off. To try and win his trust. That and to give him one last chance to be honest.”

“Why would he be, Tharol? We already know that he’s letting other merchants in behind our backs.”

“I don’t think these are merchants. They didn’t carry themselves like merchants.”

“Who do you think they are?”

“That woman…she’s someone important. And she’s someone dangerous. I’d say they’re spies at the very least, quite possibly worse.”

Reis nodded. “You know, I think I got the same sense from her myself.”

“Everyone did! I’m sure of it. Making a deal with foreign merchants is one thing, but I needed to know if Beesk was willing to be an out-and-out traitor. I mean–to be frank–I already know that the other boys here are lazy about procedure, but I needed to know if Beesk is actually dangerous.”

“Laziness is dangerous,” Reis sighed. “I had thought you would understand that. The other boys don’t think there’s any real threat out there, so they ignore all the signs of it. And that lazy, foolish, willful blindness can easily be manipulated into them doing something very dangerous.”

“Yes, I could see that.”

“You said Bovik spoke up for Standard Procedure though?”

“He did. I was–surprised. But I think he can be trusted as well.”

“Excellent. If we’re going to catch Beesk red-handed, we’re going to need as many eyes as we can trust.”

“You still want to handle this ourselves? Not go to Master Palthio?”

“Do you trust him now?”

“I…don’t know.”

“Exactly. And given that we are his pupils, I don’t know that we’ll ever be certain about him. I’m never sure when he’s being sincere about his opinions, and when he’s just trying to make a point.”

“He’s an enigma,” Tharol agreed.

“So we keep it to ourselves for now. You see if you can find out Beesk’s plans and both of us keep looking for signs of where the other boys’ loyalties are. Inol doesn’t give a single thought for protocol, so at the very least he’s a fool, quite probably in cahoots with Beesk. But Avro, Golu, and Janeao I still want us to get closer to. Maybe some of them have an honest streak like Bovik.”

Tharol nodded, the two boys looked to each side to ensure they weren’t being seen, then silently parted ways.

*

“…this time each of you will be on your own team,” Master Palthio was explaining the rules for the next competition to the gathered youth. “You may temporarily align yourselves as you see fit, but there will only be one victor in the end.”

The boys all looked to each other in surprise. This was a first!

“If you look out on the field you will notice that there is a tower for each of you, and on each tower a crystal. You must defend your crystal. Once another boy takes it you are now their vassal, and you must follow their instructions. A youth that is incapacitated to a count of four is still out of the match entirely and their crystal is forfeit. Are there any other questions?”

There weren’t.

“Then let me prepare the field…” Master Palthio raised his hands and turned to the battle arena. The ground began to ripple, as if it was made of water. Certain areas pitched higher than others, deep valleys formed in between. Faster and faster it churned, then at the height of tumult it began to slow and solidify. Master Palthio lowered his hands and the field stabilized in its complicated topology. It looked like an entire mountain range in miniature, with peaks of exaggerated steepness, almost like maze walls.

“Each tower has a banner, and on it is written one of your names. Retrieve your weapons, get to your towers, and wait for the gong.”

Tharol started to follow the boys to the weapon rack, but Master Palthio stepped up to him and tutted.

“Yes?” Tharol asked.

“Do you see where Golu’s tower is?”

Tharol scanned the field until he saw the boy’s name on one of the tower-banners. It was in the middle of a large valley, its only access points were at the base, and perhaps from a narrow shelf that raised parallel to the tower’s top some eight feet away.

“Golu is the best swordsman in the order,” Master Palthio said, “and a very defensive fighter. He won’t stray from his tower’s base and no one will be able to break past him on their own. The only way anyone will capture him will be by jumping from that neighboring shelf.”

“Yes,” Tharol nodded, still unsure why Master Palthio was bothering to tell him all this.

“And you will attempt that jump, Tharol….And you will fail.”

Tharol snapped his head from looking at the tower to Master Palthio so quickly that it hurt his neck. But the mentor was already walking away without another word.

“Why would he say that?” Tharol muttered to himself, but there wasn’t time to ruminate on the matter. He was already lagging behind the other boys and needed to hurry to the weapon rack for his gear. He secured his shield, staff, and helmet, then turned towards the maze. Before he could enter, though, he found himself face-to-face with Beesk and Inol.

“So…” Beesk said slowly. “Master Palthio said we could have alliances.”

“And let’s face it,” Inol sighed, “Golu or Reis will win in an all-against-all fight. Our only chance is to overwhelm them with superior numbers.”

Tharol nodded, though he couldn’t help but remember how pathetic Beesk’s performance was in the last competition. The boy would probably be more of a hindrance than a help…but he did want to remain on Beesk’s good side.

“Three of us is good,” Tharol agreed. “But we should get another. How about Janeao?”

“You want us to get him?” Inol asked pointedly.

“Sure, why not?”

“He hates you. Ever since you made your team lose last contest.”

“Oh? I guess it’s hard to tell with him. He’s just naturally sort of surly already, you know?”

“Yes, well, he talks pretty poorly about you behind your back, so I don’t think he’d be interested.”

“Alright, how about Avro then?”

“Sure,” Inol shrugged and Beesk nodded. “What if he doesn’t want to join though?”

“Then we take his crystal and he joins us anyway.”

Master Palthio rang the gong from his tower.

“Um, we should get in there!” Beesk swiveled around to see if his tower was still safe.

The other two didn’t need any further encouragement. Together they ran into the maze and hurried to their towers. All of them were clustered near enough that they could stand at the base of their own and still see and call out to each other.

“But what do we do about protecting our crystals?” Inol shouted to the other two. “If we go out attacking, someone else might slip in and take them.”

“One of us has to stand guard,” Tharol determined.

“I could do that,” Beesk offered, a little too quickly.

“It should be Tharol,” Inol countered. “He’s the most honest. I trust him not to steal mine until Reis and Golu are down.”

“Fine,” Beesk relented.

“Yeah, alright,” Tharol shrugged. He was starting to see how complex of a situation Master Palthio had made for them.

The other two boys paused for a moment, each giving a long look at Tharol. For a split-second Tharol wondered if they were debating rushing him together. He started to tighten his grip on his staff, but then both of them turned at the same instant and ran off for Avro’s tower.

Tharol relaxed his grip and tried to calm himself. He was being too cynical. They couldn’t accomplish anything together if they kept second-guessing each other like this. He needed to trust them to deal with Avro, and they needed to trust him to keep their crystals safe.

Of course…he really could go and take each of their crystals right now…

Tharol shook himself. What was he doing thinking like that? They were already helping him out, there wasn’t anything to be gained by forcing their loyalty. Well…except for the fact that eventually they would have to face off against each other anyway. So this would just get him ahead.

Tharol shook himself again. Apparently he couldn’t be trusted to his own thoughts! So he kept himself busy, marching back and forth between the three towers, watching the action unfold across the rest of the field as he went.

It was tricky to make sense of what was happening out there, though. The raised terrain cut off his view at multiple points. He could see Inol and Beesk approach Avro, and after a few moments discussion the three of them went off together to…somewhere. But while they were gone Janeao stealthily approached Avro’s tower and ran up it to capture the boy’s crystal!

Tharol started hopping up and down, shouting to get his comrades’ attention. “HEY! COME BACK HERE! HE’S TAKING THE STONE!”

But they were too far away to hear.

“What are you doing?”

Tharol spun around, startled by the appearance of Reis behind him. The youth must have approached from behind a fin of raised earth.

“Here for a fight?” Tharol asked, hands flying to his staff.

“If I was here for a fight I’d already be fighting you…and you would lose.”

“What then?… An alliance?”

“That’s right.”

Tharol bit his lip. He remembered what Master Palthio had said about Reis being a trickster. Where was the trick in this?

“Well–” Tharol began slowly, “I was already in an alliance with Beesk and Inol.”

“Alright, we can go back to the fighting option,” Reis shrugged, beginning to draw out his staff.

“No, wait!” Tharol really didn’t stand a chance in a one-on-one fight with Reis and Reis knew it. There wasn’t any option but to hear what Reis had to say. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a trick either. If he had wanted, Reis could have easily knocked Tharol out from behind, but he hadn’t.

“You can trust me, Tharol.”

“Alright…I’m willing to listen.”

“Good. Go get your stone.”

“What?!”

“Look, I’ve brought mine,” Reis drew his hand from behind his back and revealed a crystal. “At the same moment we’ll swap them. So you’ll have control over me and I over you. That way we’re square and can’t cheat each other.”

Tharol blinked in surprise. It was ingenious! He dashed up his tower and grabbed the crystal off of its pedestal. As he came back down he felt another wave of suspicion, though. What if Reis didn’t let go of his own crystal and just took Tharol’s?

“Let’s each set ours on the ground,” Tharol said quickly. “And walk in a wide circle to each other’s.”

“Sure,” Reis said without a care. He dropped the stone opposite Tharol’s and the two wheeled around until they had traded places. Each of them picked up the other’s stone.

Tharol still didn’t feel at ease about the whole thing…but what was done was done.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I spoke of stories that are examples of subtlety and nuance. Stories where characters say one thing but imply others. Stories that still manage to communicate the complexities of human expression, even when stripped of all the visual elements.

Today I wanted to communicate a sneakiness in how Reis approached Tharol. I wanted the audience to know that something is probably up, even though each of Reis’s arguments makes sense.

Now obviously I part of accomplishing this was by voicing those exact concerns through Tharol. Tharol expects Reis to trick him after the last competition and he believes that he is overlooking something, even though he can’t be sure of what.

But even before Tharol shared those concerns, I already did something to put the audience at unease. Something simple, but which I think makes a real impact on how the entire scene is perceived.

I had Reis sneak up on Tharol.

I believe that that one decision puts a deep air of suspicion on everything that follows. If I wanted the scene to play out as innocuous I would have had Reis approach from the front and be seen far before his arrival. But instead I had him emerge from behind, and that sneakiness casts a shadow over everything else he says.

Another interesting element from this piece was the transition from Reis and Tharol talking in the first scene to the action-centric drama of the second scene. And while the feel of these two scenes might be very different, each remains a part of a single, ongoing conversation. In the first scene our characters are exchanging information and influencing each another with their words only, while in the second they are doing the same, but now with actions combined with words.

And the fact is, at their core, virtually every story boils down to this simple idea of “characters exchanging information and influencing one another.” Discourse is at the heart of every tale, though it occurs in many varied forms. Let’s take a closer look at this with my next post on Monday. See you there!

Read My Lips

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Friends No More)

There is a scene in A Man For All Seasons where Thomas More must end his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk. Not because he dislikes the man–quite the contrary!–but to protect him. Right now being a friend of Thomas More is becoming a very dangerous proposition, and the last thing Thomas wants is for someone to be hurt for his sake.

You see King Henry is divorcing his first wife to marry another, which the church has historically labeled an immoral act. One-by-one, though, the most prominent minds weigh in to support the change of wives, as they are more concerned with protecting their lives and their stations than coming out in open defiance of the king.

Thomas More will not, though. He does not vocally speak against the divorce, but neither will he speak for it. And in his continued silence all his peers read his true opinions. An entire game is made up to force him to disclose his mind and More can feel the noose tightening around him at every turn.

And to be sure, he is ready to die for his conscience’s sake–quite literally as we see in the final act–but he does not want to be the death of anyone else along the way. And so, as I said, he has to get rid of his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk.

Interestingly, he comes to this realization while in conversation with the Duke, and even spells out that reasoning to him in plain terms. The Duke brushes it off, thinking it stupid for them to have a fake quarrel.

So then Thomas More really sets in to him:

MORE: You and your class have "given in"-as you rightly call it-because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other... The nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount. But you'll labor like Thomas Aquinas over a rat-dog's pedigree. 
Now what's the name of those distorted creatures you're all breeding at the moment? What's the name of those dogs? Marsh mastiffs? Bog beagles?
NORFOLK: Water spaniels!
MORE: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You'd hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. As you stand, you'll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! And he'll have to think that somewhere back along your pedigree-a bitch got over the wall!

And then the Duke of Norfolk tries to clobber him! Because Thomas More is not fabricating a quarrel as the Duke had predicted, he is cutting loose on all of the genuine frustration he has towards his friend. Not only towards his friend, but to all the nobles that are denying their own principles. Perhaps he doesn’t want anyone else to die for his conscience’s sake, but he knows there are a few others who ought be dying for theirs!

And so it is a real enough reason to call off a friendship…but at the same time Thomas is only revealing this honest wrath because he is still fond of his friend and wants to protect him. Perhaps he thinks him a coward and a fool, but he still loves him.

The Traitor Friend)

And this is far from the only intricate relationship in A Man For All Seasons. Thomas is also friends with a young man named Richard Rich. Richard is desperate to make his way in life and hopeful that his friendship with Thomas More will open positions and profitability to him.

Thomas More likes Richard, but he also knows that the man is a leech, and so he counsels him to go find a safer station, like a teacher, where he won’t be tempted. But when the enemies of Thomas More gain the backing of the king there is an opportunity for Richard Rich to profit from betraying his friend. He goes to Thomas one last time for support, this time using a barely-disguised threat of throwing in with More’s enemies if Thomas will not relent:

RICH: Cromwell is asking questions. About you. About you particularly. He is continually collecting information about you!... I'm adrift. Help me.
MORE: How?
RICH: Employ me.
MORE: No.
RICH: Employ me!
MORE: No!
RICH: I would be steadfast!
MORE: Richard, you couldn't answer for yourself even so far as tonight.

Richard Rich will turn to the enemy (Cromwell) if Thomas More won’t employ him. Thomas More will not employ such a spineless weasel. And so Richard Rich goes to Cromwell. And then we have a scene of him acting reluctant and morose about betraying his friend…but why else did he go to his Cromwell if not do exactly that?

The man is fundamentally dishonest, even to himself.

The Servant)

Last of all let’s consider Thomas’s relationship with his servant Matthew. Matthew is surly and shiftless. There is little reason for Thomas More to care for him. And yet…after Thomas has lost his position and the means to pay for his household he has the following conversation with the man:

MORE: What about you, Matthew? It'll be a smaller wage. Will you stay?
MATTHEW: Don't see how I could then, sir.
MORE: Quite right, why should you? . . . I shall miss you, Matthew.
MATTHEW: No-o-o. You never had much time for me, sir. You see through me, sir, I know that.
MORE: I shall miss you, Matthew; I shall miss you.

Unlike Rich, Matthew is capable of being very honest of his unworthiness. Yet in spite of all the genuine reason Thomas has to dislike him, for some reason he still does. Thus their relationship is also layered and nuanced.

The Point to it All)

The story of A Man For All Seasons has everything to do with these complicated relationships. It is full of conversations just like these where things are said and not said, understood and misunderstood, implied and explicit.

All the lords vocalize their support of the king, even though their consciences’ balk at it. Thomas More will not speak his mind, yet everyone knows what is meant by his silence. He will end a friendship by expressing real frustrations, but still cares for the man he insults. Rich will imply threats, pretend innocence, and make entire falsehoods to win what he wants. And in the midst of all his trouble Thomas will express a fondness for a servant, even when there is no reason for him to like the man.

Nuance and subtlety are inherently some of the most difficult things for an author to write, I had my own challenges with them in my last entry of The Favored Son. A Man For All Seasons, however, effortlessly weaves them into almost every scene, until they become a core theme of the entire play.

In the next entry of my story I am going to continue with subtle implications laced through my main characters’ communication. Come back n Thursday to see how it turns out.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“Ah, Tharol! Come in, come in,” Master Palthio smiled, waving the youth into his personal office.

Tharol entered, and as he did the man that had been speaking with Master Palthio looked at him with utmost disdain.

Tharol knew the man. It was Master Olayo of the Fourteenth Gate. Like Master Palthio he maintained an Order and trained his acolytes in the arts of warfare and protection. All of the Guardmasters in this district met with one another from time-to-time, though each was solely responsible for the methods they employed at their own tower.

“Master Palthio–” Olayo didn’t try to hide the irritation in his voice– “I wasn’t finished speaking with you yet.”

“Oh, how awkward,” Master Palthio smiled, “because I was finished speaking with you.”

Tharol quickly looked to the ground, wishing he wasn’t present to see such an embarrassing scene. Eyes locked on the stone floor, he heard the frustrated huff from Master Olayo and the clattering of the man’s shoes as he stormed out of the room. Tharol waited a few moments more, then looked up to Master Palthio’s twinkling eyes.

“Thank you for coming, Tharol. I was in need of an excuse to end that conversation.”

“You’re–um–welcome, Master. I–“

“I do say, Tharol, you had a great deal to say during my procedure lesson this morning, didn’t you?”

Tharol bit back what he had been about to say. He had been going to mention the first half of what had transpired in the marketplace, the part about Beesk turning down funds for buying the mangos. He had intended to see how Master Palthio responded to that, before deciding whether to proceed with the rest of the story.

But now he was caught off guard by Master Palthio’s question. “Did I?” he asked. “I only interjected a few times, I thought.”

“Six. And I couldn’t help but notice a common theme to them all. You recommended…” he raised a piece of paper to his eyes, “counting-gears affixed to the gates to track how many times they are opened, guardsmen retaining a signed log for every entry and departure, a weekly audit of those records, issuing licenses to admitted merchants, and petitioning Lord Amathur to form a Marketplace Regulations department in his Court.”

Tharol looked sheepishly to the ground. “Today’s lesson was on security measures and how they could be improved, was it not?”

“Yes, it was. But there is a point where security becomes paranoia.”

“I wouldn’t say that it’s paranoia, Master. I’m not sure if you recall, but I pointed out that there are numerous ways our current processes could be abused–“

“Oh yes, Tharol, I recall. And I might add that I don’t appreciate you detailing them out loud for any boys who hadn’t ever considered those weaknesses!”

“Oh–yes…I see what you mean.”

“So you see flaws in our system. Do you know where our system comes from?”

“No.”

“These are the proscribed measures given by Lord Amathur himself.”

“I had always assumed you came up with them?”

“I did when Lord Amathur’s father oversaw the district, but things changed when Amathur took the stewardship. Now all I have control of is how I conduct my training.”

“Well perhaps we should point out to him the flaws in his plan.”

“You’ve never seen the man, have you?”

“Well…no.”

“Well if you ever get the chance I would not recommend you critique his own plan to him. Ever.”

“Why not?”

Master Palthio looked very meaningfully at Tharol, as if he wanted to say something that he couldn’t, but wanted Tharol to understand it without him saying the words.

“Because he–” Tharol began slowly.

“Because it isn’t your place,” Master Palthio moved on from the moment. “Because as everyone in this district will tell you, it isn’t your right to tell the man to put an Marketplace Regulations department in his own court! That is not our function, Tharol. Our function is to do as we are instructed.”

Master Palthio was quite agitated now, and Tharol knew he ought to be silent and mutter a ‘yes, sir.’ But somehow he couldn’t. Instead he felt himself growing angry, and his face grew flushed.

“Even if what we’re instructed to do is wrong!” he shot back.

Master Palthio fixed Tharol with fierce eyes. “You are part of an Order, Tharol! An Order under the Lord, for the Lord, and by the Lord. And as a member of that Order his will is your command. That is how this process works. If you’re not comfortable with that, then perhaps you should be relieved from the Order?”

Tharol bit back his first response and worked his anger out through trembling fists instead. “No, Master. I do not wish to be relieved.” To himself he added because then there wouldn’t be anyone honest keeping watching.

Master Palthio excused Tharol and he left the room with a storm raging around his head. His feet plodded heavily across the wooden floorboards and his hands were clenched in tight fists. His eyes were fixed on the ground in front of him, so that he didn’t notice anyone nearby until his name was called out.

“Tharol, you headed out for patrol?”

Tharol turned in the hallway and saw Reis approaching. The boy was coming from the Western Lookout, the pet falcon that belonged to their order perched on his shoulder.

“Yes,” he answered.

“And you’re Marshall today?”

“No, Beesk is.”

“Okay, well Bovik told you about the statue woman we met last time we were out there?”

“Yes. He said you wanted to find out more about what she wanted.”

“I mean I can’t imagine it’s something good. Otherwise she would just petition for entry by normal means, right?”

“It does sound suspect.”

“I’m glad you see it the same way,” Reis smiled, but then it turned to a frown. “But, uh…you said it was Beesk who’s Marshall today?”

“Yes…why?”

“Oh, no reason.”

They stood a moment in silence, each looking long and hard at each other, as if evaluating how much to confide.

“Do you suspect Beesk of something?” Tharol finally asked.

“I…might…”

“I might, too.”

“It might even be more than just ‘might suspect.'”

“Me, too.”

They nodded to each other.

“He has a deal with the merchants,” Tharol blurted out. “He’s been letting outsiders enter in exchange for their goods.”

Reis sighed. “I thought it was something like that. Does Master Palthio know?”

“Well…no. I had actually been about to tell him about it. But–I guess I got distracted.”

Reis squinted. “Are you not sure you can trust him?”

“Um, well…I don’t know….”

“Yes. It’s very hard to tell, isn’t it. Can’t be too careful after all.”

“Do you have your doubts, then? Is that why you didn’t tell Master Palthio about the statue woman yet?”

“Exactly. Only I can’t handle these threats by myself, either. We can’t do our job here without a team, and we can’t operate as a team if we don’t know whom we can trust.”

“What did you think of the ideas I was raising in class this morning?”

“Oh, excellent! All of them. A system of checks to help weed out the bad, it’s exactly what we need! Unfortunately, we don’t get to call the shots in those areas, do we?”

“Master Palthio just got done telling me the exact same thing.”

“Right. So I’m all for the order, but really there’s got to be an order within the order. A secret brotherhood that’s built on trust, that’s committed to actually doing the things that keep us safe. And Tharol, you’ve been honest with me, and I trust you. And you can trust me.”

Tharol nodded solemnly. How strange that it felt like agreeing to treason. A treason to be honest in protecting the City, though.

“So what do we do?” Tharol asked.

“I don’t know. Still trying to figure things out. But I do know that the first step is to figure out who can be trusted and who can’t. You and me are on the right side, and Beesk is obviously not. But what about the others?”

Tharol shrugged.

“Okay, so that’s what we work on figuring out. And listen, maybe today with the statue woman is a good opportunity for you to see where the other boys’ loyalties are. Try and give them a chance to show their true colors, whether for good or for bad. Find out what she wants, but also see how the others are taking it in.”

Tharol nodded. “I’ll do my best.” And for the first time since the trip to the marketplace with Beesk he felt a small rise of hope. Maybe he wasn’t so alone in this after all!

*

“Alright, so she was just up beyond there,” Bovik nodded inconspicuously to the tree line.

Bovik, Inol, Tharol, Beesk, and Avro were out on their patrol. They had spoken of little else but the statue lady.

“Easy boys,” Beesk said to the others. “We just act like this is any other patrol. If they’re going to speak to us, they’ll start it on their own. And whatever they say, we act like we’re going along with it, okay? See what it is we’re really dealing with.”

They were drawing very near to the line of trees now and each of the boys kept flitting their eyes from left to right, trying to be the first to catch any sign of the strange woman and her guard.

“Are you all looking for me?”

The boys jumped and whirled around, looking for where the voice was coming from. There, seated in the tall grass behind them was the woman. Only her head was high enough to be seen properly and it was blending in with the rocky outcropping that she had been laying against.

The boys continued to look left and right, trying to see where her guard was hiding.

“It is only me today,” she said softly, gliding up to her feet. “You need not fear any ambush.”

“Why were you hiding though?” Tharol demanded.

“I had to ascertain first whether you intended to ambush me. Suffice it to say that after our last meeting I wasn’t sure what your intentions would be.” She quickly rotated her head to examine each boy. “But when I saw that you didn’t have the ‘angry one’ among you my hopes for a reasonable conversation greatly improved.”

The other boys slowly looked up to Beesk. As Marshall it was his responsibility to negotiate with any potential threats encountered on the patrol.

“We were told you are looking for access to the city?” he asked.

“That is correct. Just for me and my bodyguard.”

“You know that there are already methods in place to petition for access, don’t you? Any citizen need only present–“

“But I am not a citizen.”

“You aren’t?”

“No. And as I’m sure you know, there is no method for a non-citizen to sue for admission. That is the whole reason why I am here speaking to you and not your master.”

All the youth looked sideways to Beesk again. That was essentially an admission of illegal intent! Beesk thought for a moment, licking his lips as he considered what to say next.

“I see…” he began slowly. “Well of course…that makes things difficult…”

“I don’t think so. I think we have only to come to an understanding with each other. Perhaps you and I could have a word in private?”

“Standard Procedure states that no patrolman is to ever venture out alone, for fear of ambush,” Bovik quickly recited.

Tharol stared at him in awe, surprised that Bovik even knew the Standard Procedure, let alone would recite it.

“Yes, of course, usually that would mean my Sub-Marshall,” Beesk looked to Tharol, regarding him with raised eyebrows. “Unless…you didn’t think that was necessary?”

Tharol understood. Beesk wanted Tharol for a friend. He had been making an overture in the marketplace, slightly showing his dishonest hand, just to see what Tharol would do with that. Tharol hadn’t reported or confronted him, and so Beesk thought Tharol might be condoning him. Here was another test.

“Well,” Tharol waved dismissively. “You could just give us a report about it later, and that would be basically the same. Perhaps I could ask that each of you leave your weapons behind though?”

“Gladly,” the woman nodded, unclasping a dagger from her waist and handing it over. Beesk nodded to Tharol and turned over his sword as well.

There you go Beesk, Tharol thought to himself, enough rope to hang yourself with. Let’s see where your loyalties really lie.

He took the two weapons in hand and turned to lead the rest of the patrol off to a safe distance. For a moment his eyes met Bovik’s, and he found the boy was looking to him with an expression of confused hurt.

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I shared how I occasionally look over what I have just written and am amazed at how wrong it feels. But upon closer examination I am usually able to find the reason why I wrote it that way, and what I need to change in my approach to write it properly.

With this post I found a few moments difficult to convey just the way I wanted. The first was when Master Palthio explained the hard facts to Tharol, about how the Guardsmen are little more than puppets of the district lord. The second tricky scene was when Tharol and Reis are each trying to hint at their suspicions of Beesk without entirely tipping their hand. And lastly when Beesk is asking Tharol what he thinks they should do about interrogating the woman and Tharol realizes he is being tested to see where his true colors lie.

And as I paused to consider these moments, I realized there was little wonder why each of these scenes was being troublesome, they were inherently the most complex moments in my entire chapter. You see, every single one of these moments featured characters who were trying to communicate…but also trying to leave things unsaid. They were hinting, or conveying a double meaning, or luring the other party into tipping their hand first.

These are some of the most intricate forms of communication we use, so of course writing them would prove a challenge. When we say one thing, but imply another, it is a very delicate process. And many of the tools that we use to accomplish it, facial expressions and body language for example, are not so readily available in a written context.

Now in this case, realizing what it was that made these areas so tricky didn’t really make correcting them any easier, but it did give me a sense of reassurance. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, these patches were hard simply because they were hard.

It did make me curious how other authors have handled this same conundrum, though. How do you write characters that say one thing but imply another? How do you have an obvious interpretation, but also a clear subtext? How do you make sure the audience is “in” on the greater meaning without hitting them over the head with it?

Come back on Monday as we look at a few examples of exactly that. Then we’ll continue weaving our web of mixed communication between Tharol and the others on Thursday.

Why Do You Write That Way?

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It Once Was Much Worse)

At the end of my last story piece I mentioned that I had run into a little bit of trouble when transitioning from one scene to the next. It felt awkward even as I was writing it, and it sounded wrong when I reviewed it after the fact.

But let me be more precise about how it “felt awkward” as I wrote it. I think the best way to describe it would be that I felt detached from the experience. Where I usually feel like I am actively exploring the world with my characters, here I felt like I was simply typing out random words as a disinterested outsider.

And scenes that are written by a disinterested outsider are usually the least engaging ones to read as well. When an author is not connected to their own creation, then it is very hard for the audience to be.

I wanted to learn from this experience, so I decided to save the awkward segment for review. Here is how the scene originally played out.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then he scrabbled about in the dirt, picking up each coin, then turning and running further down the alley and into a door at its end.

Tharol shook his head and started to make his way back how he had come. He only made it as far as the adjacent alley, though, when he found his way blocked by a bearded and cowled man, peering at Tharol curiously and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Tharol shoved the money bag back into his side pocket, afraid that he had just met a more capable thief!

"Well that was an interesting thing to do," the man said.

"What?"

"Giving that boy half your money after working him over like that."

Tharol shrugged. "I suppose he needs it more than I do."

"A strange sentiment to be sure. Most people feel they always need more of that stuff."

"Well I didn't need those coins," Tharol said darkly. "If you must know, they were a bribe, and I didn't want to be tainted by them."

There are still a few typos and awkward phrases that I decided to leave for to keep this snippet authentic. But for a moment set those aside, and consider only the cadence and structure of the piece. Doesn’t it just feel off?

Getting Specific)

But why does it feel off? It’s all well and fine to know that a scene is bothering us, but if we can’t verbalize why, then we can’t correct it in an intentional way. All we can do is rewrite the piece over and over, hoping by pure dumb luck to find a version that works, with no guarantee that we ever will.

So I took the time and asked myself “why is this wrong?” And I found myself immediately gravitating to the first paragraph of the above section. It is made of of a flurry of rapid and excited statements in quick succession. Scrabbling in dirt, picking up coins, turning and running. Then I noticed this same pattern continued as I transitioned into the next scene. Finding his way blocked, bearded and cowled, shoving the money bag out of view. This sort of quick, dramatic phrasing doesn’t signal that we’re about to have a conversation with this new stranger, it seems to suggest that another fight will break out!

Of course it’s no wonder why I was writing it this way, I had just come out of a fight scene, where this sort of rapid pace was exactly what I needed. But now I needed to transition into something more measured, and doing so required me to pause and intentionally reset my own, personal rhythms.

Once I had done that, I ended up with the following.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then, all at once, he scrabbled about in the dirt, picked up each coin, and ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows. 

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn't gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so...

"You've been there the whole time?" Tharol demanded incredulously. 

I still start off the same way, because I am still wrapping up a fast-paced scene, and I need to not shut it out too abruptly. So there remains the quick phrases about the boy locking eyes, scrabbling in the dirt, picking up coins, and running down an alley. But now I have a turning point with the final phrase of that sentence: “disappearing into its murky shadows.”

The transition here is subtle but important. This last detail is appended to a list of actions. But it is not an action itself, it is a description. Thus in the extent of a single sentence I am seamlessly shifting the reader from thinking about actions to thinking about the little details.

I complete the transition by then describing Tharol standing still, bringing a sense of closure to the previous scene, and a reset before beginning the next. Now when he encounters the thin stranger it was far more natural to write out their exchanges at a slower, more gradual cadence.

In Summary)

So there you go. What I wrote the first time wasn’t working for me, but there was a reason why I was writing it that way. Once I understood the reason, I was able to pause and shift my frame of mind. Then I could write the necessary transition more naturally.

The important lesson here is to be mindful and intentional while writing. It’s easy and fun to just enter a state of flow where the words run out of your fingers as quickly as you think them in your mind. But every now and again it’s important to pause, think, and write what you write intentionally. I’ll try to remember this approach as I continue with the next section of The Favored Son. Come back on Thursday and I’ll let you know how that approach went.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“Alright, and that just leaves the fabric, firewood and mangos. Which do you want to get?” Tharol glanced up from the list of needed supplies.

“Fabric,” Bovik said first.

“Mangos,” Beesk smiled. “Of course.”

“That’s fine,” Tharol shrugged. “I don’t mind carrying the wood.”

“Alright, well I’ll meet you back here in half an hour,” Beesk grinned and started to walk away.

“Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Beesk narrowed his eyes, unsure of what Tharol meant.

“The money?” Tharol reached into his side-pocket and drew out the cloth bag that Master Palthio had also entrusted to them.

“Oh…right…no, don’t worry about it Tharol. I’m alright.”

“But…you have to pay…”

“Yes, I know. I have my own means.”

“From where? We don’t have an allowance or anything.”

“You know, you’re right. And I’ve never liked that, have you?” He looked sympathetically to Tharol, then to Bovik.

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Bovik shrugged.

“The other guard posts pay their acolytes, you know.”

“They do?”

“Yes. And tell you what,” Beesk clapped each of the others on the shoulder like a considerate, big brother, “you let me take care of the mangos and you go pay for the wood. Then you can keep the rest of the money for yourselves. If anyone deserves it, it’s you two.”

Tharol and Bovik were stunned into silence, which gave Beesk just enough opportunity to slip away through the crowds.

“Well what was that all about?” Tharol asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Bovik shook his head. “And since when does Beesk talk like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like–it was like he was talking down to us!”

That was unusual for Beesk. He was both one of the youngest in the order, and also one of its biggest fools. Generally he was a hapless follower, not a condescending master.

“Oh well,” Bovik shook his head. “I guess we can worry about it later. I’ll take my money, Tharol.”

“Of course,” Tharol brought himself back to the matter at hand. “Just enough for the fabric, you understand?”

“I know!” Bovik shot back indignantly. He took the money and walked off in a huff.

Tharol stared after him, feeling guilty for having said that, wondering if he should call out an apology. And it was that moment of distraction which made it all too easy for a young pickpocket to reach up, snatch the dangling money purse out of Tharol’s hands, and dash for the nearest alley!

“Hey!” Tharol cried, and immediately snapped himself out of his reverie to give chase!

He pitched himself forward, so far forward that he nearly fell on his face! His legs made up for it by accelerating to their maximum speed as quickly as possible. Tharol kept his eyes locked on the thief’s curly, brown hair bobbing through the crowd up ahead, never losing his focus on it as he wove around the mass of bodies with practiced skill, inch-by-inch gaining on his quarry.

The youth turned into a nearby alley and Tharol thundered right behind. His stamping feet echoed loudly off the nearby walls, alerting the thief to how near the pursuit was.

The thief gave a single look over his shoulder as he reached the end of the alley, then made a sharp right turn onto the next.

He looked back to see if he had time to hide after making that turn Tharol thought to himself. He’s hoping I’ll go barreling down the next alley and pass him by.

And so Tharol wasn’t surprised when he took the same sharp right turn found no curly, brown head running ahead of him. Tharol slowed to a stop, and instead regarded the sacks stacked against the nearby wall. They appeared to be filled with grain, and stood over four feet tall, more than enough to cover a crouching youth.

He took a careful step careful towards them, but kept his legs on tight springs, ready to give chase once more if the thief suddenly darted out. He took another step. He reached the nearest pile of sacks, and rocked back and forth on his toes, as if preparing to spring up and look over the top of them to the other side.

But in the air he changed it up, tucked his knees to his chest, and kicked out against the wall of grain. He connected with a heavy impact and the whole wall started to collapse backwards! There came a shout of surprise from the other side and the brown, curly-haired thief emerged.

It was a boy about two years younger than Tharol, with a roving, slightly manic look in his eyes. He fixed his unblinking eyes on Tharol, stolen moneybag clutched tightly in fist.

“Give it over,” Tharol demanded. “And I’ll let things go this time.”

The boy lunged at him, swinging the bag of money like a small mace. Tharol flinched backwards, dodging out of the way, then gave a push to the boy’s wrist as it passed him by. The combined momentum spun the boy round and Tharol gave the back a firm kick so that the boy was went sprawling into the toppled sacks of grain.

“I said–” Tharol began authoritatively, but in an instant the boy was on his feet, facing back the right direction, and charging into the fray once more! This time he swung out with his other hand, and Tharol saw a flash of metal in the boy’s grip. A knife!

“Oh, come on–” Tharol sighed.

The boy swung the blade wildly back and forth with no technique at all. Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat. The boy recoiled in shock, hands clasped to his neck.

“Now see here,” Tharol took a step forward, but the boy jabbed out yet again with the knife. Tharol easily grabbed the limb between his hands and gave it a sharp twist. The boy gave a sharp cry of pain and dropped the weapon, though Tharol had been careful not to dislocate the shoulder.

The boy was sprawled out in submission now, and Tharol easily grabbed the money bag and yanked it free. Finally he released the thief, who started to scuttle away, muttering dark oaths under his breath.

“Not so fast,” Tharol said, reaching into the money bag and quickly counting out the coins that had been meant for purchasing the mangos. “Take these.” He threw the gold out onto the ground.

The boy hesitated, as if expecting a trap.

“Go on, take it! And maybe think to ask for help next time, instead of stealing!”

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes still locked on Tharol in distrust. But all at once he scrabbled in the dirt, picked up each coin, then ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows.

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. He took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn’t gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so…

“You’ve been there the whole time?” Tharol demanded incredulously.

The man shrugged. “Found a nice corner for my afternoon nap…’til you two come along and noisy the place up.”

Tharol slid his money bag back into his side pocket, uncomfortable with the notion that a stranger had just seen him throwing a handful of gold around.

“That was a mighty strange thing you just did there,” the man squinted, “giving that boy half of your money after working him over!”

“I don’t care if it was strange,” Tharol huffed, not in the mood for idle conversation. “Anyway, it’s none of your business and I’ll be off now.” And so saying he turned to go sulk down the alley.

“Especially strange for a guardsman I would say.”

“Well why did you say that now?” Tharol spun right back around.

“Oh, hello again. I thought you were heading off.”

“I am. Just tell me what you meant by that,” Tharol demanded.

“I don’t think I meant anything by that. Don’t be so touchy.”

“Because it sounded like there was a derision in it, and if there was one you might as well say it plainly to my face.”

“No derision at all! Believe me, I can understand the desire as much as anyone else to get ahead. Your sort have a lot on your plate ‘protecting’ all the rest of us. So I suppose you’ve earned the right to–shall we say–flex your advantage now and again. No one says you’ve done wrong.”

Tharol legitimately had no clue what the man was saying, but was still pretty sure there was a lot of insinuation in it all.

“Do you mean–do you mean to say that guardsmen are being dishonest? Taking advantage of their station somehow?”

“Ehhhh…now this is getting curious. If you don’t mind my asking, are you new to your order?”

“Two years in.”

“Ah. And you haven’t noticed–well, never mind, forget I said anything.”

“No! That’s it, isn’t it? You’re saying you know guardsmen that are somehow using their office for gain, aren’t you? What is it, then?”

“You really don’t know? You’re really that innocent and naïve? You’ve really been two years in your order and haven’t already seen?… Haven’t taken any of the opportunities yourself?” With that last question the man raised a single eyebrow in a highly skeptical manner.

“No! Of course not! How dare you! Why–not that it’s any concern of yours–but the reason I gave those coins to that boy was because they were meant as a bribe and I wanted nothing to do with that!”

“So you say you haven’t seen anything suspicious at your order…but here you were carrying bribe money?”

The man had a point. Indeed, this was a large part of why Tharol was feeling so agitated. The man was hitting directly on the discomfort he had already been feeling from Beesk’s behavior.

Five minutes later and Tharol was hidden in the upper alcoves of the marketplace, watching Beesk joking around with the merchants. They talked like old friends as Beesk helped himself to their wares without ever a coin exchanged between them. He not only filled his satchel with the assigned mangos, but also selected a fine quill, a brass button, and a fried pastry, securing these prizes in his cloak’s inner pocket.

“They know each other,” Tharol observed. “This isn’t him exercising some advantage over them it’s…an arrangement.”

“That’s right,” the slender stranger nodded next to Tharol. “And you really didn’t know?”

“I had no idea. But what is the arrangement?”

“Think, boy. What’s the only thing a guardsman has to offer?”

Tharol frowned in confusion. Guardsmen had no valuable possessions, no influence or power. All they dealt with was watching the gates and keeping them…closed.

“These are outsiders?!” Tharol said so loudly that the thin man frantically moved his finger to his lips. “Sorry,” Tharol hushed his voice. “The other guardsmen are letting outsider merchants in?”

“The market is so weak outside of the City, barely any more than crude bartering. There simply has not been any sovereignty that has prevailed long enough to bring stability to the economy.”

“So bribe a guardsman? Tell him that he can have free wares if he’ll let you pass into the city?”

“A mutually beneficial arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”

“But what about the risk of invasion? It’s rumored that there are still enemies to the city out there!”

The thin man laughed. “Oh it is not merely rumors. Trust me. There are many enemies. Why that is the one banner that the outside hordes can still rally behind. And you can be sure there have are a number of spies that have slipped in among the merchants.”

Tharol stared down at Beesk in shock. How could the youth be so selfish? So willing to advance himself at the expense of the entire populace? Well, Beesk would be held accountable for it, that much was sure! Just wait until the other boys–

Tharol’s eyes went wide with a revelation. “But…none of us guardsmen watch the gate alone. We always watch in groups of three or four.”

“Yeah…so?”

So were they all in on it? Was there not a single honest guardsman at their post? At any post?

“And what of the Masters over the towers? Surely they should have started detecting what was going on by now?”

“Um…yeah,” the thin man said as if this was obvious. “You think it’s only the acolytes that do this?”

Then…perhaps even Master Palthio?

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I spoke of timing in a story, particularly during a scene of action. I recommended using short, direct sentences, which can be read in the same amount of time as the moment they describe would take to transpire in real life. In addition I mentioned that the brevity of these scenes does not mean that they should lose their expressive, evocative tone.

With today’s section I experimented on these methods during the fight between Tharol and the thief. It is only a short scene, but for a quick, alleyway brawl that was exactly what it should be, just a few, decisive blows that take about as long to read as it would take to watch.

And as for descriptive prose, I made sure to use adjectives that conveyed the technique and attitude of each boy during their scuffle. Consider the following lines:

Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat.

Tharol is described with phrases like “waited patiently,” “casually stepped,” and “gave a slight punch to the throat.” It is clear to the reader that he is calm, collected, and precise. The boy, meanwhile, “lashed outwards” and left “his front entirely unguarded.” He is untrained, blustering, and prone to error. I don’t have to delve into technical jargon or complicated mental diagrams to get the reader to picture this fight accurately and expressively.

All in all I was quite pleased with the turnout, but then I ran into some trouble immediately after. For this scene quickly transitions to Tharol’s conversation with the thin stranger, and I found it difficult to make that change smoothly.

As I reflected on the reason why, it was because I was still in a mode of writing the sentences in a short, abrupt manner, which was now at odds with the more leisurely cadence of a conversation. Like Tharol, I was still a bit flushed from the rush of combat, and needed to calm myself down.

There was an important lesson for me in this, all about how to not just throw away a bad piece of writing, but to examine it and understand why I wrote it the way you did. That way I can be more purposeful in my next attempt, rather than randomly scribbling things out in the hope that one of these iterations will happen to feel right.

I’ll take some time to examine this in greater detail with my next post, and also share the specifics on how smoothed out the transition of the two scenes in this chapter. Come back on Monday to read about that.

Update on My Novel: Month 19

black pen near white printer paper
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NOVEMBER STATS

Days Writing: 13
New Words: 2121
New Chapters: 0.33

Total Word-count: 62,821
Total Chapters: 17

Definitely a quieter month for me compared to October. In fact it was my fewest number of days since July. Those days felt a bit like running in place, too, as most of my time was spent back in my previous chapter, adding in another scene.

November is a big holiday month here in the United States, and that definitely was a large factor in how things went. But December is an even bigger holiday month, and so I am anxious about falling into the same trap.

The hardest thing for me is to have skipped a few days, and then have to get back into the context of where I was the next time I start. It makes it all the more tempting to just skip the next day as well.

To that end, I’m going to take special note whenever a day passes and I haven’t written anything. I will make it a rule that I must write on the next day in that case. I’m far enough ahead on my story blog that I could even afford to take a day off there, if it meant having time to work on the novel.

We’ll see how this approach works. If it’s effective, then the absolute minimum number of days for me will be fifteen, which isn’t great, but still better than what I managed this month.

For now here’s a piece that I wrote during this month, it is part of the scene that I added into Chapter Seventeen. Fair warning, it is rather intense.

“Yes. See how you’ve clenched yourself? All the muscles in your abdomen tight as a rock? That’s no good. Then when it has to drive through that’s–“

A strangled cry emanates from deep in your throat as ‘it’ pierces through with a series of rapid surges, forcibly cutting its way through the muscle on its way towards the surface. You sift your fingers back and forth through the dirt, trying to focus on that sensation, willing it to take your mind off the pain at your belly. You give two sharp inhales, then try to relax your muscles.

It is a hard thing, though. For the flesh feels the knife’s edge within, and instinctively flexes itself against it.

“Focus on my voice,” your companion offers. “Make me everything you see, hear, and know. Better to turn away from yourself at this part. Better to make it so you don’t even know what happens.”

The knife-edge pulls back, then lunges forward again. Your somewhat relaxed muscles seize right back up and you cry out again! The knife-edge increases pressure, drives itself at the fibers. You give a long, guttural groan, clenching your fingers on the hard soil, gripping the entire earth for you anchor.

“Press on!” your companion cries. “Press on! You are so near!”

Your long shout goes silent as the last of the air expels from your lungs. You choke silently for a moment, then ‘it’ bursts out of your navel like an arrow.

A strange cry, like that of a wounded animal, warbles out from between your numb lips.

“Yes! Yes! You’ve done it!”

Your whole body trembles as you let your torn muscles slacken. With face on the ground you catch a glimpse of a small gray creature falling to the soil. It drives razor-head into the dirt and scrabbles its feet madly. It disappears into that new womb, churning the soil up in a small cloud as it seeks its collective.

For a moment you feel nothing, and then all at once the entire ground seems to turn beneath you. A single massive force contracts and flows, like a massive underground river. It is the collective welcoming their newest brother.

With a sob you roll onto your back, weep the birth, and try to stop your body from its convulsions.

The Speed of Punch

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Too Fast For It’s Own Good)

I have a big pet peeve in action movies. It’s something that has been going on for a long while, still finds its way into top-tier blockbuster titles today, and every time it shows up makes the whole scene feel cheap and insincere.

So what is this cardinal sin? Ramping the playback speed up to 1.25x speed.

This is done to make it appear that the actors or vehicles are moving faster than they were when the scene was filmed. Rather than throwing their punches or swerving their cars in real-time, they spring about in a choppy, erratic manner that feels detached from reality.

As soon as an action scene starts to do this, it doesn’t matter what else happens, the moment has been ruined for me. Right then I feel just as disconnected from the action as if it had been animated.

So the only good use of playback is at 1x speed?

No, I wouldn’t say that. To an extent, some modifying of the playback speed is to be expected, but ideally (and usually) it is so subtle that it can’t be recognized. Also a sped up moment mixed with silly music can make for a great comedy bit, the irregular movement accentuating the humor. And of course slow-motion can be used to great effect as well, highlighting the importance and intricacy of a single moment.

But what is important is that the effect should lean into the fact that the playback speed is being changed. It should not make an obvious change and then ask the audience to pretend that what they are seeing is normal. A fast-paced comedy bit or a slow-paced dramatic bit are being honest about their change of speed and they are saying something to the audience through that.

The Opposite Problem)

Overly-fast action, however, is usually not the problem we face in written stories. More often the failure here is a scene of action that transpires too slowly. Again, there is a time and a place for slowed down moments of gravitas, but by and large a scene should be read in the same amount of time that it would take to play out in real life.

What makes this such a challenging feat is twofold. First is that one of the main appeals of a novel is how they allow us insight into the characters that isn’t otherwise possible. If all I do is tell you what people are doing in a sterile, play-by-play fashion, then my story will lose all of its flavor.

But when it comes to a scene of action, dwelling on the private thoughts and feelings of a character just makes the action slow to a slog. Action is not the time for making the audience feel introspective, it is for making them feel excited!

And so sacrifice narrative intimacy?

Not at all. One just has to learn how to write their action both succinctly and evocatively. Do not merely say that one man struck another, do it in a way that conveys mood and intent, but also do it quickly!

The other challenge to writing a scene of action is the matter of conveying a complex event in a clear manner. If you are already familiar with jiu jitsu I could just tell you:

James grabbed the free arm and pulled it into a tight kimura!

Now if you know what a “kimura” is then you’re right there with me. But if not, then you’re checked out.

What do I do, then? Try to describe all the technical details of the hold? Should I recite the angles of each limb involved so you can draw them out on graph paper? Obviously no.

Writing complicated details in succinct terms is one of the greatest tests of how well an author is able to leverage the imagination of the reader. You cannot write it in explicit detail, but you could write just enough that the audience can add the extra detail themselves. I might have instead written that sentence as something like:

James grabbed the free arm and gave it a sharp twist!

It is a more ambiguous bit of phrasing, and different readers might picture different postures from it, but all of them will have the general gist of what’s going on.

An Example)

Let’s bring this all together with an excellent example from Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town. It begins with one of those slowed down moments of gravitas I was talking about, pulling in close to examine a black walking stick that is going to be of utmost importance in the scuffle that is about to ensue.

It was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use—marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest—as soft a black as the knob—as if it had known much contact with a human palm.

A moment later and the action is being described in terms that are as evocative as they are succinct, and the shining star of it all is that black walking stick with which we’ve been made so intimately acquainted. Here are three excerpts from the battle.

Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip....

He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed—the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click...

Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple—spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees.

Literally poetry in motion.

At the end of it all, I would say that my action in the last section of The Favored Son was somewhat lacking. Certainly it was nowhere near the snappy-yet-detailed prose of Hammett.

I’m probably still not ready to write at his level, but I would like to take another shot at it with my next section. Come back on Thursday where I will include another brief scene of action, honestly just so I can try out some of the techniques I learned in preparing this post!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Two

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Part One

“…and the inverted task will be building and destroying a tower with those wooden beams,” Master Palthio extended his arms and pointed to each side of the field. On the right-hand-side there was a pile of tree trunks laid about haphazardly. At the opposite end they had been stacked into a four-tiered tower.

“Who is building?” Reis asked.

“You and yours. Any other questions?”

There weren’t, and so the eight students divided into two teams of four. They gathered their weapons–staffs padded on each end, iron helmets, and wooden shields–and then marched off to their respective sides of the field.

Every week they had a contest against each other, the rules of which were slightly altered each time. They were to play as two militias, each trying to earn their victory in the field.

The paths to victory were multiple.

First was through brute strength. Whenever a youth was knocked to the ground, he had four seconds to return to his feet. If he failed to then he was pronounced dead, and if all of one side was pronounced dead then the other side won.

Secondly was to carry all five stones at the end of your own field to the other field’s end. They were very large, and required both hands to manage.

And thirdly was to fulfill a special task. This was the part that changed each week, but what never changed was that the task was always inverted from one side to the other. Thus in this case Tharol, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro had to protect their tower from being toppled until all the sand ran out in Palthio’s timer, while Reis, Inol, Golu, and Beesk had to build their tower before that same timer ran out.

Tharol and the rest of his team waited until they were out or earshot of the others, then immediately launched into strategy.

“We would have a hard time of it trading blows,” Tharol observed. “Reis and Golu are too dangerous.”

“You and I would have a chance with them,” Avro countered.

“Maybe one time out of three,” Tharol shook his head. He knew it was important to be practical about one’s strengths and weaknesses. Over-confidence in these practices was what usually doomed the losing team. “But we could at least hold them off while getting the rocks over. You feeling like carrying stones, Janeao?”

“No, actually. I twisted my ankle coming down the ladder this morning.”

“Who else knows about that?”

“Golu was there.”

They all looked sideways to where Reis and his team were similarly huddled in strategy.

“Well they all know about it now,” Bovik sighed. “Looks like we go for their tower. Press in on all sides and keep them distracted so they can’t finish it in time?”

“Or play defensively,” Tharol suggested. “Protect our own half and hope they make a mistake.”

There was a moment of silence as each boy thought the options over on his own. Then each of them slowly looked to Tharol to make the final call.

Tharol looked up from the rest of them, over to where the other team was still having their own deliberation. For a brief moment Reis looked up from that group and made eye contact with him.

“I would say defensive…” Tharol turned back to his own team, “and Reis knows that. So let’s go aggressive!”

Master Palthio finished his ascent up the small tower that stood at the edge of the field. He paused to watch as the boys finished their council, then nodded to them and struck the gong.

“Janeao, you defend the tower!” Tharol ordered hurriedly as he and the others began streaking across the field.

Ahead of them Reis and his team were retreating towards the back of their field, either on their way to build the tower or start carrying stones.

So now they’re the ones playing defensively? Tharol thought to himself. That was unusual for Reis. “Don’t strain yourselves,” he called to Bovik and Avro. “Let them fatigue themselves.”

They slowed down to a jog, which allowed them an opportunity to see exactly what the other side’s strategy was. As soon as Reis’s team reached the back end of their field they split into two pairs. Inol and Golu went off to the stones, while Reis and Beesk made for their wooden beams.

“Do we follow both groups?” Bovik turned to Tharol.

“No, don’t worry about the first stone. They can have that one.” Tharol felt a rush of excitement. Reis and Golu might have been the best fighters of them all, but they had just split themselves apart from each other. Tharol, Bovik, and Avro would be able to overwhelm Reis and Beesk, get them pronounced dead, and then turn around and do the same with Inol and Golu. They were going to win!

“Fan out,” Tharol ordered. “We’ll trap Reis between ourselves and get him down as quickly as possible.”

Tharol kept the center, his comrades on either side. By now they were right on top of Reis and Beesk at the wooden beams.

“Ho!” Reis called, and Beesk dropped the beam he had been carrying. Both of the boys drew their staffs from their backs and raised their shields.

Tharol was closest to Beesk, and saw an opportunity to temporarily take him out so that they could focus on Reis. With a grunt of exertion, he thrust his staff forward like a javelin. Beesk barely managed to catch the blow with his shield, and the force of it made him take a step back, tripping right over the wooden beam he had just laid at his own feet.

Reis exclaimed in disgust before Tharol, Bovik, and Avro all rushed him together. He took a strong defensive stance, keeping his back to the mess of wooden beams sprawled on the ground so that none of them could get behind him without losing their footing.

They didn’t need to, though. A direct three-way assault was too great to be denied. Reis couldn’t block three swinging weapons with one staff and one shield. Though he tried to dodge about, tried to block two of their weapons and sidestep the third, his stamina and focus could only be sustained at such a high level for so long. Before long he took a blow. Then he took another. Pain and disorientation started to dull his reflexes. His movements began to be heavy and slow. He was quickly waning.

Tharol suddenly realized that Beesk must have returned to his feet by now, and he whirled around to ensure that the youth wouldn’t sneak up on him from behind. Coincidentally, Beesk had been sneaking up on him, and Tharol’s swinging staff caught him fully in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious!

“Oh Beesk,” Reis groaned.

Tharol spun back around and raised his staff for a mighty blow.

“Wait, wait wait!” Reis stammered, lowering his own weapon and shield. “I surrender.”

“What?” Tharol asked.

“Can he do that?” Bovik wondered aloud.

“Here, look,” Reis dropped his weapons to the ground, then lay down beside them. “One… two… three… four… I’m out, right? It’s official.”

“But–why would you do that?!” Avro demanded.

“Is it really so strange to not want to be clobbered in the head?”

“For you…yes,” Tharol asserted. Reis would never take a loss willingly, no matter what the cost was.

“Ah well…you see…”

Suddenly it started to dawn on Tharol. Reis wasn’t surrendering to spare himself pain, he was wasting their time. And at the same time that he realized this, his ears started to pick up on the sound of distant shouting, so faint he hadn’t noticed it before.

Tharol turned sharply about, eyes racing to the other end of the field. And there he saw that Inol and Golu had abandoned their stone as soon as they were out of sight of Tharol, Bovik, and Avro. They had sprinted down the field to where Janeao defended their tower alone. Janeao was valiantly trying to thwart their assault, propping back up the fallen beams that had already been knocked over and shouting for assistance. But he wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer. Already, it might be too late.

“Run!” Tharol ordered, then thundered down the field towards the battle. He didn’t check to see if Avro and Bovik were following behind, he just raced faster and faster. He dropped his weapons to the ground, let his arms pump at his side unhindered. He threw off his helmet, stretched his legs for every inch possible.

He wasn’t going to make it in time. Janeao had permanently taken the place of one of the fallen beams, helping to hold the entire structure up by sheer strength. Given that he couldn’t move from that place, Inol and Golu had resorted to taking out the other supports until the weight or imbalance would force the whole thing down on him.

“JANEAO, GET OUT OF THERE!” Tharol roared.

Janeao looked to him in confusion.

“DON’T TRY TO BE A HERO!” Tharol pleaded. “IT’S OVER!”

Janeao winced as another support was knocked away, suddenly increasing the burden on his shoulders. He flexed his arms and legs, trying to correct for the shift of balance.

At last Tharol reached the scene and flung his arm around Janeao, jerking the boy out from under the tower, tumbling with him to the hard soil as the entire tower came crashing down all around. One or two of the beams ricocheted into them, scraping them as they passed overhead, but then all was still.

“What did you–” Janeao panted as he rose to palms and knees. “Why did you– Why did you do that, Tharol?!”

“It was over, Janeao. It was coming down.”

“I could have held it! You were already here…you should have fought with them and let me do my own job!”

Tharol couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I just–I just saved you, Janeao.”

“I didn’t come here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to win a battle. It’s time to be men and start taking care of things.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What was it you were shouting? ‘Don’t be a hero?!’ You think that’s how a warrior prevails?”

And with that he rose to his feet and stomped away in a fury.

Tharol looked around in confusion. Inol and Golu were leaping up and down, rejoicing in their victory. Bovik and Avro stood off to the side, shrugging at Tharol, neither approving or condemning his actions. Reis was pulling a dazed Beesk back to his feet, and then the two of them came over to join their team in celebration.

“Did you get hit?”

Tharol was snapped out of his reverie and turned to see Master Palthio, approaching from behind.

“What?”

“You seem dazed. Did one of those wooden beams hit you?”

“No sir…I was just…thinking.”

“Ah, I can imagine. Come walk with me.”

Master Palthio didn’t wait for the boy, but turned and strode off so that their conversation could be private. Tharol quickly scrambled to his feet and caught up with his mentor.

“Yes, Master?”

“So why are you so troubled today? You’ve lost at these competitions before, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but…I really thought we had this one. One moment we seemed so close to victory, and the next…we had lost.”

“Mmm. Reis definitely stepped up his performance today, didn’t he? I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you boys had been getting downright silly in these practices: beating on each other with brute force over and over, with never a thought for strategy. I’m pleased to see someone finally deciding to take it seriously.”

“Well we were trying to be strategic, too. We figured they would expect us to take a more defensive stance, and so we flipped it to catch them off guard. But…”

“But Reis knew you would do that, and he put together his trap? Yes. So why are you so confused?”

“How did he even know that we would do that?”

“Ah…well exactly how I couldn’t say. But to be sure, Reis is a trickster…and you are not. So if you’re trying to come up with something cunning, you might as well assume that he’ll see it coming from a mile away, and already be two tricks into his own plan.”

“What do I do then?”

“You’ll have to find the way that you overcome a trickster,” Master Palthio said simply, then turned from Tharol and walked away.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I shared about boredom, and how it has served me well, both in finding my life passion and in improving my craft in that passion. I’ve especially benefitted from my ability to detect boring passages when writing action sequences, such as this one of the boys having their mock battle.

In most cases, action is meant to be rapid and precise. While one could spend a great deal of time detailing postures and angles, that would kill the momentum of the scene. Several times while writing this piece I caught myself straying into unnecessary, weighty details that bogged down the action. I updated things to be more succinct, striving to make it so that the amount of time it took to read an action would be the same as the amount time it takes to actually perform it.

That sort of 1:1 balance can be a tricky thing to pull off in stories, especially given the fact that everyone reads at different speeds. But when done well, it allows the story to feel active and alive, like it is happening around the reader in real time.

I’d like to take the time to explore this notion of time-lapse in a story in greater detail, particularly in terms of an action scene. Come back on Monday where we’ll look more closely at this, and then next Thursday as we continue with The Favored Son.