Instructions Not Included: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.

“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”

“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.

“Yes, the beacons.”

It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.

“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.

“That’s right. A careless mistake.”

Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”

Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.

Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.

“Batch 18, confirmed.”

The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.

“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”

Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”

Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.

“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”

The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.

“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”

Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”

“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.

Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”

“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”

Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”

“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.

“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”

The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.

“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”

Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”

The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.

Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.

Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.

“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”

Curtis shook his head.

“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.

Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.

“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.

“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”

He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.

“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”

Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”

The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.

“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”

Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”

The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.

“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.

The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.

“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.

“Yeah…do you still want to run?”

Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.

“Hit it!”

Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.

*

As I said on Monday, the ending of Instructions Not Included is only an ending of its first act. This would signify the moment of transition where the story enters its central conflict. The brothers would continue an ongoing battle with this strange corporation, the tension escalating until the point of climax. The brother’s triumph would depend on them resolving the philosophical differences that have been introduced in the first act.

In the end, I like where this story is headed. I think it could be a fun adventure story targeted towards older children and teenagers. I would like to complete it, but I’m already committed to one novel, with many other concrete ideas for other ones after that. For a while I struggled with how many story ideas I had. I didn’t want to accept that there simply wasn’t enough time to make every novel that I wanted to.

It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end I was able to accept the truth of the matter: my productivity will never keep up with my imagination. I’d like to talk a little more about the realistic limitations of an author’s productivity, how to accept those shortcomings, and how to choose which stories one should write. Come back on Monday where we will discuss these topics. Until then, have an excellent weekend!

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Phillip the Mouse: His Very Special Talent and The Camping Trip

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Phillip the Mouse and His Very Special Talent

One morning, Phillip’s father made his special Cinnamon & Cheese Morning Delight for their family breakfast.

“Mmmm!” Phillip’s mother said while chewing her food. “Your cooking is always so delicious, dear!”

Phillip’s father smiled and said “Well of course, that’s my special talent!”

That got Phillip’s mind working. Did he have a special talent, too? He thought he must, but as he sat there, trying to think what it might be, nothing came to mind.

After breakfast he decided he would go out and try to find what it could be, and as long as he was going out, he thought he may as well walk down the road towards the train tracks. He loved going to the train tracks. Along the way he thought about some of the talents his friends had. Marcus the hedgehog could juggle, that was a pretty neat talent. Suzie the duck could memorize long poems and sing beautifully, those were definitely talents as well. Robbie the Sheepdog was very, very strong, and that was a talent, too.

Phillip reached the hill that looked over the trains passing down below, and he sat on a rock to watch them crawling by. He thought about if there were any talents he could do, but all he could come up with were just the ordinary sorts of things. He had learned how to tie knots last summer, but so had all his friends. He could drink from an open cup without spilling now, but all the adults had been doing that for years already.

Phillip was interrupted from his thoughts by the sound of the 507 Freight Train churning down below. The 507 was the biggest and heaviest train that came on these tracks, racing by like a great, red dragon. Phillip loved how the ground churned beneath him as it rolled past. It was always the last train of the day, too, so Phillip stood up and made his way back home.

On his way he passed by the hole of Jane, the rabbit, who was always the smartest one in class. Definitely a talent. Next came the home of Benny, the Tortoise. Everyone always said how patient Benny was. Phillip supposed that was a special kind of talent, too.

“I’m home,” he called out as he walked back inside.

“Were you watching the trains again?” his mother asked and Phillip nodded. “I’m glad,” she smiled. “I always think it’s so special how you love them.”

Just then it Phillip felt a rush of excitement. Could it be that loving trains so much was a talent of his?

He asked his mother and she agreed. She even said “being able to see the beauty in things is one of the best talents of all!”

That night, as Phillip lay in bed, he felt very special indeed. Marcus might juggle, Suzie might sing, Robbie might be strong. Jane might be smart, Benny might be patient. But he knew that not a one of them loved trains as well as he could!

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Camping Trip

One morning, after Phillip awoke, his parents came into his room with big smiles and told him that they were going camping today! It sounded very exciting…but Phillip wasn’t exactly sure what camping even was.

“It’s a time when the humans leave their homes to come live where we do, so meanwhile we go and live in their house for the weekend,” his father explained.

As soon as they had had their breakfast and got ready for the day, they whisked off to the humans’ big, fancy home. Phillip had never even peeped inside the house before, and he was very excited to see what might be in there. They waited in the bushes while the humans loaded up their car and drove away, then Phillip’s mother and father led him up the outside walls, inside a small hole in the rafters, across the attic to a chewed-through air vent, and from that into the home itself.

There were all sorts of fantastic things for them to do. They pushed something called a “tap” to get water flowing in a large, white thing called a “tub.” Then they could slide down the smooth porcelain into a pool of water and swim all around. There were some other bristly things in the room called “toothbrushes” and Phillip’s parents showed him how to use them to dry off afterwards.

Next came a great, poofy, bouncy thing called a “mattress” that they jumped on for hours and hours. There was a “ceiling fan” they could turn on as well, and they had dangled some “suspenders” from it so they could hold their ends and swing around very quickly. Then they would let go and try to zoom across the room to land in some nice, soft pillows. Phillip missed one time and knocked over a “vase” that shattered everywhere but his parents said not to worry about that.

Best of all, though, was the place they called the “kitchen.” Here there were all sorts of foods Phillip liked. Fruits and vegetables, plenty of cheese, and even new things like “cereal” and “pie.” It was all quite excellent.

After two days of their vacation, Phillip’s parents said the humans would be back soon, so there was one last thing they had to do. They went on top of the end-of-hall door, lowered a string around its handle, and opened it to let out the family cat. Phillip’s parents explained that this way the humans would just blame Mr Tiggles for the big mess. Of course, having now let the cat out, Phillip and his family couldn’t stay around any longer, so they whisked out a window and hurried back to their home, whooping and hollering the whole way.

***

As I mentioned on Monday, the purpose of these two stories was to illustrate how I designed some bedtime stories for my toddler son that were specific to his interests and life events. For the first story, its design came about from the fact that my son loves trains very, very much. I just wanted to make a story that could convey to my son how I love that he loves trains, how proud I am that he lives with passion. For the second story, I came up with it just a day or two before we left on a camp-out for our Summer vacation. We had been talking about it with our son and he was pretty excited for the trip, so I wanted to craft a story that let him live out his happy anticipation through Phillip’s silly antics.

From these two examples it’s probably apparent that many of the stories I tell to my son carry messages or themes. Sometimes these come across as just playful, but other times they are meant as a more serious teaching moment. That’s a concept I’d like to explore with my next post: teaching through stories. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then I’ll do an example of it with more Phillip the Mouse stories next Thursday.

Phillip the Mouse: The Lion’s Toothache and The General’s Horse

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Phillip the Mouse and the Lion’s Toothache

One day Phillip the Mouse was out on the Savannah, watching a lion laying under a tree. He had been warned that lions were dangerous and sneaky creatures, so he remained hidden in the tall grasses and didn’t make a peep. However, though he was hidden from sight, he hadn’t accounted for the lion”s excellent sense of smell.

SNIFF went the lion. “Ahhh,” the lion said to himself. “There is a delicious mouse out there. I wonder how I could get him to come closer?” He suddenly had an idea and he called out “OH LITTLE MOUSE! LITTLE MOUSE, PLEASE COME QUICK! I NEED SOME HELP!”

“He needs help?!” said Phillip, and he scurried out into the clearing. “Help, did you say?”

“Oh yes, indeed,” said the Lion, smiling to himself. “You see, I have the most frightful toothache and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have such clever little paws like you do, mine are much too large and clumsy to reach into my mouth. Here, I’ll open wide and you go take a look inside, please.”

The lion opened his mouth as wide as he could, and Phillip helpfully scurried over, standing on the lion’s tongue he peered back along the row of sharp, pointy teeth. Suddenly he realized that he had stepped into a trap and even saw the lion’s mouth starting to close!

“Oh, lion!” Phillip called out, thinking as fast as he could, “You were right! There’s a most frightful tooth infection here!”

The lion abruptly stopped closing his mouth. “Thewe is?” he asked in surprise.

“Ohhhh, absolutely! It looks like it might soon rot your whole mouth away! We need to get it out straight away. Luckily for you I’m just the mouse for the job.”

“Den pull ih out!” the lion cried.

“I will. But first, your mouth is starting to droop. You’ll need to keep it wide open while I work.”

“Pwop it open wiv somefing!”

Phillip scurried out, grabbed a large stick, and wedged it between the lion’s teeth, forcing the mouth to stay open. “Also,” he continued. “I’d better go get some numbing grasses so this doesn’t hurt you too much.”

“Good ideah!”

Phillip leapt down to the ground, rushed back into the tall grasses, and ran all the way home. For the next few hours the lion lay there with his mouth propped open, unable to do anything but stare around confusedly and repeat “Oh, liwwle mouse, liwwle mouse! Whewe awe you?”

 

Phillip the Mouse and the General’s Horse

One day, Phillip learned that the noble General’s Horse was in town, and he wanted to go and meet this legendary hero. He went into the village and walked through the streets until he found him. The General’s Horse was standing at a post with a crowd of admiring creatures around him. He was tall, strong, and a magnificently wild gray color. But as Phillip was very small, he could not see the horse as well as he would like and he decided to go get closer.

Phillip ran and leapt upwards, grabbing the horse’s tail with his paws and scurrying up it onto his back. Phillip started moving forward to the horse’s front when suddenly the General himself swung into the saddle. Before Phillip had a chance to get off the General clicked in his heels and the horse sprang away! Phillip lost his balance, and fell backwards barely managing to grab the passing saddle bag with his tail. He held onto it for dear life, bouncing upside down and watching as the village raced away behind them.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” he squeaked out, but his voice was too quiet to be noticed. There was nothing to do but wait until the General and his horse had reached their destination.

After a while the three of them arrived at a neighboring city and the General dismounted and left. Now that things weren’t so rocky Phillip was able to climb back up the saddle bag and all the way across to the horse’s ear.

“Excuse me!” he said into it.

“What? Who’s there?” the General’s Horse asked in surprise.

“My name is Phillip, I’m a small mouse from near the village that you just left. I really do need to get back home, though, I was wondering if you could take me back.”

“Oh certainly,” the horse laughed kindly. “The General won’t need me for a while now.”

The horse turned around, but didn’t move. “Oh dear,” he finally said. “This is all very embarrassing, but you see, the General always steered me which way to go and I don’t always pay attention to all the turns we make. Do you know the way back to your village.”

“Oh, well, I’m not sure…” Phillip started to say. Everything he saw looked familiar, but somehow also different. Suddenly he realized the problem, it was all the wrong-way-up from how he had seen it before! Wrapping his tail around the saddlebag he let himself fall upside down again, and now everything was perfectly clear. “Take a left down that dirt road!” he called and the horse whisked away in that direction. They kept on going, Phillip giving each direction until at last they came back to the village. He felt a swell of pride, thinking to himself how impressive he must look to all his friends and family, swinging into town, hanging upside down from the saddle bag of the General’s Horse.

***

As I said in my Monday post, these two stories are from the bedtime stories I make up for my son each night. It all started when we were still trying to establish a regular bedtime routine, one that would allow him to be soothed and relaxed enough to sleep. One of those times I had the idea to make up one of these stories for him. Apparently it made an impression, and the following night he asked for another story and soon it was a tradition. Every day I have that motivation to be a little creative so I can create a new story for him, and I feel that it has been a very good exercise for me.

Now these two examples I shared are pretty generic adventures for Phillip, but as I’ve had to search for continual sources of new ideas, I’ve found it works very well to draw from my son’s own characteristics and day-to-day experiences. That makes the stories more personalized and he often reacts well when the story winks at his real life. On Monday I’d like to talk about that concept a little more: using a specific individual as the intended audience for your stories. After that I’ll share an example or two next Thursday of how I’ve done that in other Phillip the Mouse stories.

Go on an Adventure

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Last week I wrote a post about how some of the most popular stories are ones that introduce the reader to a familiar and relatable character, and with them then journey into increasingly fantastic and strange corners of the world. I presented the notion that part of this structure’s success is due to the way it has a gratifying pace and aesthetic inherent in its design. Beyond this, though, it is also effective because it happens to be a subset of one of the most powerful genres of stories, one that is designed to resonate with the very soul of a reader. And that genre is adventure stories.

The scope of this genre is immediately apparent: adventure. To adventure is to experience something new, especially something exciting, often entailing some risk along the way. Adventure stories that fall under this definition have been around for a long, long time, dating back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh, estimated to have been written around 2100 BC.  Within this broad genre are several sub-genres. There is the epic, the hero’s journey, the treasure hunt, the heist, the superhero romp, the space exploration, and more. There is magic and tech, good guys and bad guys, danger and fun. Adventure stories dominate the box office in the film industry, the bestseller lists in the book industry, and game of the year awards in the video game industry. A single popular adventure story in any of these media types can make billions of dollars in revenue, and dozens of popular new adventure stories are released each year.

So what is so captivating about the adventure story? There’s a pessimistic answer, I suppose. It could be argued that this phenomenon can be chalked up to nothing more than unhealthy escapism. Humans are unwilling to face the realities of life and so they numb out their emotions and escape their responsibilities with mindless pulp. Do I believe that this happens? Of course. There are plenty of shallow adventure stories, and they definitely get used for self-medicating. Often these sorts of films, books, or games will be huge when they first come out, only to be forgotten a year later when the next iteration releases. But I do not feel this describes the reality of every adventure story, once-in-a-while there comes along a true adventure, and those are timeless.

True adventures are meaningful. They garner an ongoing passion, which cannot be achieved just by being stylish or trendy or even “fun.” This sort of deep connection to the audience can only come as a result of positive, healthy stimuli, the sort that makes us want to be better people for having taken part in the journey. These stories speak to a particular facet of our human condition, the part that, not surprisingly, craves adventure in our real lives.

The fact is each one of us has, at times, looked at who we are and found it wanting. We feel that gap in our souls and it perpetually gnaws at us. We all seem to know a few who are really “living the dream,” but the majority of us feel that we aren’t charting the courses we were meant to blaze. The true adventure story speaks to that inner yearning, and specifically to three major desires that every person has.

1)

No one wants their story to be that they stayed the same for the rest of their lives. Granted, stagnation is comfortable, it doesn’t require the pain of overcoming barriers, it undoubtedly carries the least risk, and for all these reasons it is the most efficient way to live. It also destroys us. If all our lives we are going to remain the same person that we are right now, then we’ve already reached the end of our story with scores of blank pages left over. Deep down we know that’s unacceptable.

One adventure story that has always resonated with me is It’s a Wonderful Life, where our main character George Bailey faces this exact dilemma. He doesn’t want to be stagnant in life but he feels that he is. He knows he has unsung songs and unsought adventures and it is making him bitter and regretful. When fate does shake up his monotonous life, though, he shrinks and cowers from it. It’s not until he has an escapade with his guardian angel that he realizes this predicament is also an invitation to finally live with passion. He doesn’t end up with a life that looks very different from the outside, but it is clear he has changed internally and the family and friends that he previously took for granted are now the very adventure he always craved.

Another tale I love is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In it we find two slaves, Tom and Eliza, who both live under a beneficial master and are very comfortable with that arrangement. Neither of them seeks to upset the order of things, though clearly there is so much more life they could be living if their situation were changed. Once again fate intervenes, and Tom is passed through a variety of different masters, ending on a cruel Simon Legree with whom he engages in a great moral battle, one in which he ultimately triumphs. Meanwhile, Eliza saves her son by fleeing with him to Canada and freedom, hunted by slave-catchers the entire way. Each character evolves through the course of their respective adventures. Tom was good, but by the end he is a literal savior of souls, redeeming the downtrodden from the clutches of evil. Eliza was intelligent and kind, but through her journey she becomes a lioness, accomplishing incredible feats and facing down danger to escape her would-be captors.

There is a lot of resistance to committing to an adventure, because by definition a true adventure needs to be something hard. I once was told that the problem with so many of us is that we don’t try anything until we’re 90% sure of success. Do we really want our story to be that we spent our lives accomplishing the things that were obvious and likely? There’s nothing interesting in that.

2)

No one wants their story to be that they were beaten by their demons or weaknesses. Another of the gaps we feel in our lives is that we aren’t as good or nice or honest of a person we feel we should be. We might have vices that we are ashamed of or weaknesses that we feel cripple our success, and we are afraid of being consumed by these shortcomings. There is another genre of story, opposite to the adventure, one that speaks to this fear. The Greek Tragedy was designed to follow a very specific format, one that captures the demise of a hero. This hero was always highly relatable to the audience, a generally good but imperfect being, and one that has great potential. Over the course of the story, however, their success is snatched away as a direct result of their common human failing, culminating in a tragic downfall. This pattern was designed to provide a cautionary tale for all those who share this same flaw and do not correct it. Achilles is baptized in purifying water, but not entirely. There remains a single part of him that is holding back and you can be sure his enemies find that weakness and destroy him by it.

But what if things went the other way? What if we identified our failings and we corrected them? Any true adventure story will feature a main character that changes and improves over the course of the tale, providing hope to each of us that there is a better life available if we can do the same, and thus avoid our tragedy.

We see this in Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol. Each introduces us to mean and bitter men, but men that we see strokes of ourselves within. We’ve all had times of being rude to others and prioritizing worldly wealths over human connection. We do not doubt that each of these flawed humans is on the way to their miserable destruction, but then, once again, fate intervenes and they are taken away on an adventure. Phil Connors learns to care for others and so does Ebenezer Scrooge. Once again, it is not an easy journey for them, if it had been the audience would reject it because real life obstacles we face are not trivial. If they were we would already have overcome them. And so the audience doesn’t want to be told that going on their self-improving adventure is easy, just that it is possible and worth it.

3)

No one wants their story to be forgotten. Just as how a good book stays with us for years, people want to be remembered. And how are they are to be remembered if not by some sort of story? “Here is your Great-Aunt Agnes, let me tell you about this one time when she…” Our heritage is only going to last if we went somewhere, did something, or became someone. Went, did, became: a journey, a quest, a calling. We all feel that there is a hero inside of us, someone who is made of greatness. And that hero was meant to do something. Not just any old thing, either, we each want it to be something that “only I could do.” We want to have our story validate that we had a purpose in life, a reason for being here.

There’s a game I always come back to called To the Moon. In it, a man named Johnny has reached the end of his life and is filled with great melancholy. He has an overwhelming sense that he has not measured up or been true to his potential, and now there is little time to change that. On his deathbed he is granted a final opportunity to go on one more adventure, and in the course of it he is able to find a promise he had forgotten, and with it a core part of himself that had long lain dormant. He maintains his promise, and for a moment becomes the hero he was meant to be, in the process leaving a legacy to be remembered by.

The Princess Bride is another wonderful example of timeless remembrance. Buttercup and Wesley are introduced as thoroughly ordinary people, ones that are of little import to the world. They develop a love for each other, though, and it is the beginning of a romance that is anything but ordinary. Like with all of these examples, fate once again intervenes, this time to separate the two. Though divided by miles and years, neither forgets the other or the love they share. To return to each other requires them to become more than what they were, and it is their burning desire which forges them into the heroes they were born to be, fighting the world for the right to be together again and leaving legends in their wake.

 

As you might have guessed the stories I mentioned are some of the true adventures which have meant the most to me. To the Moon, A Christmas Carol, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Princess Bride, and Groundhog Day have each made me feel a better person for having experienced them, and each has urged me in a different way to seize my own life adventure. All of us would likely have a different list for what stories should be included in that personally-meaningful true adventure category. I would encourage you to see which ones have stayed with you over the years and ask what they are trying to tell you about your own life. If you’re comfortable sharing your findings I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I think a common trend we’d find is that the stories that stick with us are not just ones where we are living out our adventures vicariously through the characters, but where our hearts were stirred and we were pushed closer to taking that fateful step ourselves, thus the tales become a real force for good in our lives.

Over these last several weeks I have been trying to craft short adventure stories of my own. Both To the Great Infinite and Imposed Will have featured characters who venture into the unknown to try and secure a better world for themselves, and grow personally as a part of that endeavor. On Thursday I will wrap up Imposed Will and bring a close to this adventure series. I look forward to journeying with you to a new series next week.