Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

The Shape of Change

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The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

A Little Self-Reflection

man standing in front of mirror
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Seeing Ourselves)

Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.

During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.

Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.

An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.

 

Inescapable Change)

Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.

We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.

Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.

This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.

No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.

 

Change Through Reflection)

There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.

This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.

In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.

Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.

And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.

In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.