The Time Travel Situation: Part Two

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Part One

“You distract the dinosaur!” Mavis shouted to Patrick as they tore through the undergrowth. “I’ll circle back and fix the Time Capsule!”

“Got it!”

Mavis peeled to the side and ducked behind a rocky outcropping, waiting for the T-Rex and Patrick to pass him by before racing back to the Time Capsule.

“It looked like it bit through the Stabilizer Array,” he muttered to himself as he came upon the scene. “Probably blew all the gaskets! I can replace those from the Fabricator, but I’ll have to come up with something custom to replace the Levelling Detection….I just don’t know if I have enough time!”

*

Ellie stumbled through the bushes and right into the path of the enemy patrol.

“Oh no!” she shouted, then turned and bolted back the way she came.

“After her!” the leader of the patrol shouted and they all rushed over the same bush she had disappeared behind. No sooner did they do so than they fell down a massive ravine to their deaths!

“Nicely done,” Chase’s head popped out from one of the bushes on the edge of the cliff.

“Thanks,” Ellie smiled as she popped out from a bush on the other side.

“What are you two happy about?” Nell huffed next to Chase. “We’ve only taken care of half your mess. I’m sure they already radioed to their base that we’re here, so now they’ll be on high alert at their base. They’re just waiting for us to invade!”

“Well then maybe we use that to our advantage,” Chase looked thoughtfully to a nearby mountain top.

“What?” Nell scrunched her nose.

He sighed and pointed out the cliff directly above the enemy base and the massive boulder that was lingering at the edge of that very cliff.

“If they’re looking for us down below, they won’t be watching up above. They won’t see us dropping that big, old rock right on top of them!”

“That seems…too convenient…” Nell shook her head.

“I like it!” Ellie said, and she traipsed off with Chase to start climbing the mountain. Outvoted on the matter of plot contrivance Nell followed with a sigh.

*

Mavis moved his hands like a concert pianist. He grabbed and placed and bolted and snapped and fused and sheathed and twisted with the speed of an expert in a panic. Every now and then he glanced up to the sky, watching the fiery streak that illuminated the cloudless sky. Every minute the meteor seemed a little bigger, a little lower towards Earth. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it!

If Chase, Ellie, and Nell took care of their part of the mission then that meteor would wipe out everything still tied to this timeline in a matter of minutes. Mavis’s hands started moving even faster!

“Come on, Patrick, get back here! I need your help!”

*

Up above Chase and Ellie and Nell clung to the side of the cliff, climbing as quickly as they could to the summit.

“That meteor is getting closer!” Ellie said, a slight tinge of panic in her voice.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it up there in time,” Nell concurred.

As if matters weren’t bad enough, Chase’s next step dislodged a loose stone, which frightened a flock of pterodactyls roosting down below. With ear-splitting screeches the massive creatures swooped up towards the children, threatening to dash them off the mountainside.

“Hang on!” Chase called. “I’ve got an idea!”

“Ohhhh no,” Ellie shook her head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”

“Hyah!” Chase shouted, flinging himself off the rock wall and onto the back of the nearest pterodactyl! The creature squawked in surprise and flapped wildly, trying to knock its hijacker off.

“Oh no you don’t!” Chase snarled, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck and hauling upwards, slowly steering it towards the top of the cliff and away from the other attacking pterodactyls. “Ha! Look at that!” he called to the girls down below. “Two birds with one stone.”

“Two pterodactyls, don’t you mean?” Ellie grinned, then swallowed her fears and leaped onto the next flying reptile to pass by!

“Hey, wait for me!” Nell followed suit.

*

Mavis leaped into the air and grabbed hold of a support beam in the roof of the Time Capsule. He swung his other arm to swap a fresh power cell in place of the damaged one while his legs pumped wildly, keeping himself aloft.

“Patrick, where are you?!” he roared yet again.

As if on cue Patrick’s head came bobbing into view just above the tree-line. Mavis stared in amazement as the same T-Rex from before came charging into the clearing, Patrick perched triumphantly on its head, steering it from a harness made of vines and–

Nope, nope, nope!” Nell shook her head, hopped down from her swing, and folded her arms.

“What?” Patrick asked innocently, still holding his heroic pose on top of the slide.

“There is no way you captured and tamed a T-Rex in the last fifteen minutes.”

“Oh you’re one to talk! You’re riding a pterodactyl up a mountain!”

“That wasn’t my choice. These two–” she gestured to Ellie and Chase, “have absolutely no sense of reality.”

“C’mon Nell, we’re traveling through time,” Mavis sighed. “This doesn’t have anything to do with reality.”

Nell threw her hands up in exasperation, but clambered back into her swing and started pumping into the air. “Well I say ‘Are you two ready to jump off?!'”

“You don’t have to say that you say it,” Ellie reminded. “Just say it! And yeah! Get ready, it’s going to be a rough landing!”

The three flyers launched off their steeds and skidded onto the top of the cliff.

“Alright!” Chase crowed. “Let’s shove the boulder over!”

The three of them sprinted to the behemoth and pressed against it with all their might. Looking up they could see the meteor looming as large as the sun in the sky. It was near enough to make out the mile-high flames scorching its surface. Near enough to feel the weight of it bearing down on them.

“PUUUUSH!” Nell strained.

*

“Patrick, watch where you’re stomping!” Mavis ordered. “I barely have the Time Capsule put back together!”

“I’m trying…but…this guy isn’t following orders,” Patrick called down from his perch. “I said, go right!” Patrick gave the reins a sharp tug, eliciting a deep snarl from the beast. “Easy boy, easy!” Patrick tried to soothe, but the T-Rex wasn’t having it any more. With a particularly mighty roar it shook itself vigorously until Patrick was dislodged and fell to the creature’s feet.

“I thought we had an understanding!” Patrick said indignantly, but the T-Rex just bared his teeth and snarled.

“Uh-oh!” Mavis squeaked.

*

“We’re too late!” Ellie pointed to the enemy base down below. A hatch had opened in its ceiling and a massive cannon emerged, pointed directly for the approaching meteor. The coils at the back of the cannon hummed and glowed as a fire started to glow at the bottom of its barrel.

“Just focus!” Chase ordered. “Rock it back…and PUSH!” All three of them shoved in unison. The rock resisted their force for a moment, but finally gave way! With a great crumbling sound it went careening down the side of the cliff, bounced off the rocky wall once, twice, then spun through the air on a direct collision course for the base below. Already the gun had charged, though, and it fired its molten blast into the air…and into the falling boulder! The rock had intercepted the blast just in time, and now the rock burst into a million pieces of shrapnel!

Some of those shards pounded back down into the enemy base, tearing it to shreds, and some of them flew out sideways, pelting over the treetops and punching through the T-Rex that was menacing Patrick and Mavis. It fell to the ground, mere inches from crushing the Time Capsule again.

“You guys better get here!” Mavis shouted as he started punching numbers into the command panel.

“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Ellie shouted back, looking over her shoulder as the meteor broke through the atmosphere and scorched the clouds. Their three pterodactyl-steeds came wheeling back to them from that direction, frantic to outstrip the specter of doom! Ellie, Chase, and Nell leaped onto the lizards’ backs, steered them straight for the nearby clearing, and tumbled off at the entrance to the Time Capsule.

“This isn’t going to work!” Nell looked incredulously at the extensive damage still strewn throughout the Time Capsule.

“She’ll hold together,” Mavis snapped back as the last of the children entered the machine.

“We’d have a better chance surviving the meteor than a time jump in this heap of junk!”

“Never tell me the odds!” Mavis punched the button.

“Hey!” Nell cried as she the Time Capsule lurched to life, knocking her to her feet. “I wasn’t ready, you scoundrel!”

“Scoundrel?” Mavis smiled slyly as he helped lift her back to her feet. “I like the sound of that…”

Nell scoffed and turned away. “You’re a moron.”

“I know,” he sighed.

“Quiet, you guys,” Patrick said in awe. “Look!”

The rest of them followed his gaze through the nearest porthole. All of them watched as the meteor impacted on the ground, kicking up a tremendous wave of dirt and fire, and flinging dinosaurs violently through the air! The ripple of destruction broke right on top of them, but they weren’t smashed to bits. All the rock, and dirt, and dinosaur washed over them without making a single dent, for the Time Capsule had already untethered from the time of that place and was picking up pace to leave it behind as a distant memory.

Patrick hung his head sadly.

“I can’t believe we just let that happen,” he sighed. “We were there, man. We saw them: dinosaurs! They were going to be spared and we just let them die.”

“You know it was the right thing to do,” Ellie patted his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s our mission to keep time on its predefined course, not to–ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! PATRICK, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?!”

She leaped back quickly from the boy, startled by whatever she had just seen. As soon as she was out of the way the other children could see what had set her off. The head of a baby raptor had just popped out from Patrick’s shirt pocket, and now the lizard was trying to wriggle all the way out as the boy vainly tried to shield it from view.

“N-n-nothing to see here,” Patrick stammered, poking at the baby again, only to get a nasty bite on his finger in return. “Ouch!”

“Patrick!” Mavis said accusingly. “What did Ellie just get done saying? We can’t change time!”

“I haven’t!” Patrick insisted. “Look, this baby was there when the meteor hit, right? So what do you think happened to it? It died! It was taken out of the picture. Well now it’s still out of the picture, I’ve just taken it out another way, that’s all.”

“You can’t just bring a foreign element into your home like that!” Nell exclaimed. “You have no idea what it’s bringing along with it!”

“Oh come on. It’s just this one, little guy. I didn’t bring anything else with us.”

As if on cue a slow, trilling sound came from the storage bay. Next the sound of claws tapping on the tile floor as three adult raptors sauntered into view.

“Oh…” Patrick said. “Unless it’s pack saw me take it and followed us here…”

PATRICK!!” all the other children said in exasperation.

But there was no more time for discussion. Just then the raptors caught sight of the baby and leaped furiously after it! All the other children dove to intercept them before they tore Patrick to shreds! What followed was pure chaos. Chairs were thrown, panels were smashed, and wires were stripped out of the walls! Jaws snapped at ankles and make-shift lassos tossed in every direction. Everyone was both pursuer and pursued at the same time, no one stayed still for even a second.

And during it all the Time Capsule churned faithfully on. Millennia after millennia passed, century after century, decade after decade. Now the blur of rising and setting suns slowed and the moon rose over a stormy night, its light reflected on the world’s largest mirror: the Pacific Ocean! A massive thunder cloud in the east rushed onto the scene like smoke in a jar until it filled the entire horizon.

Time slowed down still further. The waves settled into a tumultuous rolling and the storm became a single, solid gale. Details that were imperceptible before became clear, such as daggers of lightning that stabbed in the heart of the storm and rain that streaked sideways over the sea.

And in this world of sea and storm there loomed a single witness: an old ship. Its sails were straining away from the storm, but still the water spilled over its deck and threated to sink the entire thing at any moment. And it was upon this doomed vessel that the Time Capsule came to rest, silently perching itself at the very back where none of the sailors would notice it amidst the chaos.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

On Monday I spoke about the use of real-world references in a fictional story. I shared a few examples of how they can be utilized in a way that fits the flow of the tale and doesn’t break the fourth wall. One of the situations I illustrated was when referencing a piece of media that the audience is already familiar with, and how that can be used as a shorthand for understanding between reader and character.

In today’s post I wanted to briefly touch on Mavis’s crush for Nell, and I realized I could have him quoting Han Solo’s lines to Leia. The audience would hopefully recognize the words, realize he is viewing the two of them in the same context, and thus trying to hit on her. It all comes to a head where the “I love you,” “I know” line is flipped to her insulting him and his accepting the defeat. Clearly this joke wouldn’t have worked if I had not used a reference that the audience was already familiar with.

Another thing that I tried in this story was to intersperse multiple scenes into one. In the first case I was doing this by having the real world impinge on the fantasy one, such as when we see the kids on the swings and slide. That is not all, though, I also had that moment where the exploding rock reached from one scene with Chase, Nell, and Ellie over to the scene with Patrick and Mavis.

I want to take a little more time to consider separate scenes that overlap with one another, how they have been used in other stories, and how they can be used to add complexity to a story. Come back on Monday as we discuss that, and then again on Thursday for the next chapter in The Time Travel Situation.

The Time Travel Situation: Part One

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“Mavis, you have to come now,” Ellie pleaded, “or else we won’t have time before next period.”

Mavis sighed in a longsuffering way, but raised himself from the lawn and brushed the crumbs of his lunch off his lap. He gave one last draw on his juice box before lobbing it into the trash bin.

“You don’t need me to start y’know. I can always join in.”

“But your ideas are the best,” Ellie explained as the two of them ran across the field. “And just so you know, Nell’s playing today, too,” Ellie winked slyly.

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

The two of them reached the edge of the field, next to the swing sets, where the other children were busy arguing.

“We’re not doing dinosaurs, Patrick,” Chase said. “We’re not five anymore!”

“Oh, because secret agents is so original?” Patrick fired back. “It’s time for something different.”

“Pirates!” Nell offered.

“We’ve done that, too.”

“Not for a while.”

Patrick groaned at everyone else’s obstinance. “You guys just do what you want then. I’ll do my own thing.”

“We’re all doing our own thing,” Mavis declared as he arrived on the scene.

“Huh?”

“Dinosaurs, secret agents, pirates…all of it!”

“That doesn’t work,” Chase folded his arms in protest.

“It does when there’s time travel involved!”

All of the other kids went quiet and cocked their heads curiously. Mavis immediately launched into the hushed tone of one distributing top-secret information.

“We’re not just any secret agents, though, we’re members of the Temporal Security Agency. Time travel has already been invented but the government decided they have to regulate it, so they set our team up to monitor the ripples of time and watch for any temporal disturbances.” He was reciting the background for the latest adventure game he and his brother had been playing at home. Any hesitation the other kids held was swept away at the sound of such a fleshed out premise! Mavis had learned before that being able to launch straight into a compelling introduction was the best way to end an argument and get everyone else to fall in line.

“What’s a temporal disturbance?” Nell asked, and with that sign of curiosity the matter of what they were going to play was officially settled.

“It means that someone else has traveled back in time, messed something up, and now the future is about to be rewritten! But our sensors in the past tell us those changes are coming before they reach us, and that gives us a chance to jump back in time and undo whatever changed.”

“I don’t understand,” Patrick shook his head.

“Bad guys in the past changed things, we gotta go back and stop them,” Ellie surmised.

“Oh, okay.”

“EHH! EHH! EHH!” Mavis tried to imitate the sound of a klaxon sounding. “Oh no, everyone, that’s the alarm! We gotta get to the Time Capsule quick! Nell and Chase, prime it for launch. Patrick and Ellie, grab weapons and supplies. I’ll get the report from the computer!”

Everyone scrambled to their duties. Patrick and Ellie sprinted to the trees and came back with their arms full of sticks and pinecones, the guns and bombs which were surely standard issue for sensitive time distortions. Ellie and Chase dashed to the jungle gym and started unplugging invisible hoses and tightening massive bolts.

“Make sure you stabilize both reserves before fueling them,” Nell ordered, then did a double-take and threw her hands up in disgust. “No, you klutz, you’ve done it backwards again! I’ll do it myself.”

“Oh come on, Nell,” Chase protested. “Don’t be mean in this one, too.”

“No, it’s alright,” she flipped off the scolding tone like a lightswitch. “I’m going to learn how to be nice during this one. It’ll be good.”

Mavis came hurrying back to the jungle gym, flipping through imaginary sheets of data. “Well it looks like this was a coordinated attack,” he declared. “Three teams made a coordinated attack at three different places in time. We’ve got to go to the days of the dinosaurs, the pirates, and the old west. We’ll visit each one in turn, keep things from being changed, and catch whoever is behind this all.”

“We’re ready to go!” Nell announced as she closed the electrical panel on the side of the time capsule.

“Here,” Ellie handed out high-powered rifles to them all. Patrick distributed utility belts and stuffed their pockets with bombs.

The door to the Time Capsule slid open behind them, a thick, white cloud flowing out with a hiss. It was now or never!

“Two hundred million B.C.” Mavis read out as he walked into the machine and entered the coordinates onto the center panel. “There’s going to be raptors and T-Rexes. Don’t use your guns if you don’t have to, they’ll probably just make them angry.”

Patrick was the last one into the time capsule and he sealed the door behind them. “Ready to make the jump!” he declared.

Ellie and Nell went to the central power conduit to monitor its levels while Chase concerned himself with the data screens all along the walls.

“And here we go!” Mavis roared as he hurriedly flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position!

There was a sound like the crack of thunder and bright lights flashed from all the monitors and displays. The ground rumbled beneath them and a steady hum shook all the walls: the resonance of change. All about them the world whisked back through time. Through portholes they could see life reversing at rapid speed. The building they were in unbuilt itself, the city skyline went from steel skyscrapers to log cabins to a wild forest, the sun and the moon chased each other through the sky faster and faster until they blurred into one. They were racing past entire millennia in a single moment now, and all the outside world blurred into incomprehensibility.

“MAINTAINING APPROVED LEVELS!” Chase reported over the roaring din. “WE’VE REACHED SLIPSPEED!”

“OKAY…” Mavis nodded, his eye on the date indicator ticking down in the center. “WE SHOULD START TO SLOW OUR VELOCITY NOW!”

Streaks started to show in the pure white of the outside world. The streaks slowed into changing patterns, slowed into recognizable forms of mountains and stars and trees.

“PREPARE FOR TIMESTOP!” Chase announced before Mavis could.

Outside they could make out individual pterodactyls flying backwards, water flowing up the mountainside, leaves rising from the ground to perch on the branches of trees. Suddenly a bright light appeared in the sky, coalescing rapidly to the center of a tremendous explosion! As time continued to march backwards the unmistakable streak of a meteor traced backwards from that explosion, settling into the position it held one hour before. Then, all at once, time paused for a split-second, then began moving forward at regular speed. They had arrived.

“Whew!” Patrick said in relief.

“But what was that explosion we passed along the way?” Mavis demanded.

“My character says, ‘well it’s got to be the meteor that kills the dinosaurs,'” Nell rolled her eyes. “‘Obviously.'”

“Nell, we’ve talked about this,” Ellie sighed. “You don’t have to narrate what you’re saying. You just say it.”

“I think you’re right, though,” Mavis approved Nell’s observation. “But that meteor was supposed to hit the earth, right? Why’s it exploding up in space?”

“Captain, I’m getting readings of a nearby heat signature,” Chase approached with his tricorder. “It could be a rocket facility.”

“Time travelers, Chase,” Ellie shook her head. “Not Star Trek!”

“But excellent observation,” Mavis nodded. “I’ll bet that’s where our time-troublemakers are at. In about an hour they’re going to shoot a missile to take out that meteor before it hits earth.”

“Well…that sounds pretty good to me,” Patrick shrugged. “Then the dinosaurs will still be alive.”

“That sounds good?!” Chase demanded. “How will humans be able to evolve, then? They’ll all get eaten and we’ll never exist.”

“But we’re here now. We could just stay here and live with the dinosaurs.”

“We’re not going to give up all of human civilization for some old animals!” Nell scolded.

“What then? Make sure that all the dinosaurs die?! That’s not right!”

“Listen Patrick,” Ellie said more gently, “you’re a Temporal Security Agent, aren’t you? Well it’s not your job to get lost in time, it’s to keep it the same, whether for better or worse. It’s the burden we all bear. We’re all in this job because we’re the one’s willing to make the tough choices.”

Patrick wiped a small tear from the corner of his eye. “Alright,” he said, “let’s smoke ’em.”

“Good man,” Mavis clapped him on the shoulder, then walked over to the wall of the time capsule and opened a hatch. Inside was a harness fitted with all manner of wires and buttons. It was pulsating with yellow energy. “Looks like the remote activator is charged,” he observed. “Remember, its tethered to the last point of time that the Time Capsule came to, and can return us to it in an emergency. But it will break after a single use. Who wants to be in charge of it?”

“I will,” Ellie accepted the responsibility and put the harness around her shoulders. “We’re ready to go!”

But just then they were interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek coming from somewhere just outside the Time Capsule. Each of them shivered as a long-forgotten instinct woke up in their hearts. The instinct to be terrified of an apex predator!

“What is it?” Chase looked to Patrick fearfully.

“T-Rex, of course.”

“We have to run!” Nell panicked.

“He’s already got our scent,” Patrick shook his head in defeat.

“Alright,” Mavis said. “Looks like we’ve got to split up. You’ve still got the coordinates of that enemy base, Chase? You and Nell and Ellie go check that out. Patrick, you and I are on dino-distraction-duty!”

Everyone nodded, Patrick particularly enthusiastically, then bolted for the door and out of the Time Capsule.

“Keep your walkie-talkie on channel 6!” Mavis called after the others as he switched on his own.

“He’s already here,” Patrick grabbed Mavis and pointed in equal parts terror and giddy excitement at the treeline. The branches and leaves burst apart as a massive lizard charged into the clearing, eyes locked on them, and giving off another ear-splitting roar!

“RUN!” Mavis shouted, then the two turned and bolted in the opposite direction of their comrades, leading the Tyrannosaur away from the mission. They hadn’t gone more than ten paces when they heard a sickening crunch from behind. Wheeling around they saw that the dinosaur had paused to give their Time Capsule a taste, puncturing through its walls with its teeth. Panels were strewn on the ground and sparks of electricity flashed from exposed wires. The machine…was broken.

“Well this just got worse,” Patrick understated.

*

Meanwhile the other group dove through the underbrush, anxious to not waste a moment in their task.

“There’s no telling what we’re going to find when we get there,” Nell observed. “Everyone have your rifles ready, but I don’t want any sloppy shots giving away our position! We take out any guards stealthily, you understand?”

“Wait, whoever said that you outrank us?” Chase asked.

“Oh. I definitely outrank you.”

“Quiet, you guys!” Ellie hissed, dropping to a crouch and pointing through the low-hanging branches. The others halted and followed her gaze to a patrol walking by.

There were three guards, all of them in strange, metallic armor suits that covered every inch of their body.

“Are they robots?” Chase wondered aloud.

“Only one way to find out,” Nell said determinedly.

“Yeah…wait…what do you mean by that?”

But rather than answer Nell lifted up a large rock and hurled it full speed at the head of the nearest guard. It cleaved the helmet clean off, sending a bright ribbon of blood shining through the air.

“Guess that’s not a robot.”

“Ewww! No!” Ellie shook her head. “Don’t make it gross, Nell.”

“Well that’s what I see, you can see whatever else you prefer.”

I like it!” Chase approved.

Ellie shook her head, then looked back up at the guard crumpled on the ground, still dead, but with head fully attached and totally bloodless. Meanwhile the other guards ducked for cover and drew out their weapons.

“We got infiltrators at the West Perimeter!” one of them called into his communicator as the other drew a bead on the children.

“I said to take them out quietly,” Ellie hissed.

“What? I got mine,” Nell protested. “You two were supposed to nab the others.”

“Never mind that!” Chase roared “We’re blown now!”

And the three of them dashed back through the trees, ducking and weaving to dodge the incoming gunfire!

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

On Monday I spoke of children playing pretend and the raw creativity that comes from that. I also mentioned how children grow, and as they do they gain a firmer understanding of the world, more of the unknown becomes known, and pure creativity comes less naturally.

It was for that reason I set this story to be about children who are in their preteens, just reaching the point where games and shows are cropping into their plays and redefining their view of imagination. Mavis uses a video game that he has seen for the foundation of their story, Chase finds himself slipping into the role of a Star Trek explorer, while Patrick just wants to live out his dinosaur obsession.

But they are still resisting the urge to play out already-existing narratives and still create their own way forward. Being creative might come less naturally as we grow older, but that doesn’t mean it ever goes away. We can train ourselves to draw connections being known quantities to invent unknown ones. This idea is present in Mavis concocting a premise that allows for dinosaurs, pirates, and secret agents all in the same story. He is blending enough things together that there doesn’t remain any script to follow. The glue that will bind all these separate elements together must be their own imagination.

It’s been fun for me to write a story from this perspective. It is both kids set in real life doing realistic things, and also it is a complete fantasy.

I want to call attention to something else that I did in this story which I hardly ever do: call out real world media. In this first section I have already made reference to both the real-life Journeyman Project games and the Star Trek television series.

I don’t do this very often, because it usually weirds me out when a fictional story, even a realistic fictional story, tries to pretend that it is actually tied to our real world. I have only felt comfortable doing it in specific instances and for very specific reasons. Come back on Monday as we consider the inherent awkwardness of real-world references in fiction, but also the potential benefits of it when done in the right way.

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


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

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 leaped 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 the village race away behind him.

“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

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.