Most stories have a natural arc. At the very beginning there is no context and they must establish the setting, which results in a slower beginning. Then once the groundwork has been laid, the slower pace gives way to rising action. Something in our aesthetic taste dislikes tension that moves up and down at random, so without even thinking about it we organize that rising action into a gradual crescendo. Thus we rise and rise until we reach a natural peak at the story’s climax. Then we need to show the aftermath of that climatic moment, which results in a slower ending.
Thus we have a rise, a peak, and a decline: one complete arc.
It’s interesting that we imbue story structure with so many visual and geometric terms: arcs, a peak, rises and falls. Why we can even map a story’s movement on a piece of graph paper.
But we can draw different sort of curves, and we can write different kinds of stories. How about this one?
It’s essentially the same thing, but it’s divided into two rises and falls instead of just one. And it could be further extended into three arcs or four or five or however many you want. And this pattern exists in storytelling, too. Just think of a television series, where each episode is its own complete story, but is also only a single chapter in the larger, season-long tale, which is itself an entry in the larger, series-long tale.
Notice the blue dot in the previous image, halfway down the first arc. In mathematics this is called the “inflection point,” and it represents the spot where the arc stops being an convex curve downwards to a concave curve upwards. Yes, the line still continuing down, but at the point there is already the tendency in the graph to come back up again.
And now consider the example of Season 2 from the television series Breaking Bad. The arc of this season is primarily about the relationship between meth cookers Walt and Jesse, and the strain that comes between them when Jesse’s loyalties shift to his new girlfriend Jane. The tension rises, all the way to the climax, where Walt sees Jane choking, has a chance to save her life, but instead lets her die. Then comes the downtrend of the arc, where Jesse comes to terms with Jane’s death and finally returns to Walt for support, totally unaware that his former partner is guilty of negligence in the moment of tragedy.
But in the midst of all this, Walt has started working for a new drug kingpin named Gus Fring. At this point Gus has relatively little impact on the story, but he has become involved in Walt and Jesse’s lives, and in the following seasons he will become the most dangerous rival they ever face! His introduction is not the high point of season 2, but it is the inflection point, which seeds the upswing that will come in season 3.
But can two arcs exist in a story that isn’t a serial? What about in your typical stand-alone story, such as a single novel or film? Can you start a story, rise to a climax, descend to a low point, and then start that cycle over?
Yes, and this comes in the form of an act. Now I need to be clear on semantics here. Often “act” is referred to as a segment of a continuous story, such as when talking about the rising action, climax, and resolution of a three-act story.
But in this instance I am referring using the term “act” as it is used in playwriting, and this act is itself divided into its own rising action, climax, and resolution phases. In theater and early films many stories were divided into two of these main acts, each with its own complete arc, and separated from each other by an intermission.
Especially in theater this practice is still common, such as in the musical Hamilton. Here the first act rises with the growing tension between England and the colonies, breaks into outright war, and concludes with America winning its independence. Then there is the intermission. In the second act features rising tension between the new nation’s politicians, climaxes in the breaking of Hamilton’s political career and marriage, and then eases itself into an ending of reconciliation.
The use of an intermission between acts serves the logistics of a play or film, because it lets the audience purchase more concessions, gives everyone a chance to use the restrooms, and in the case of old cinema it provides time to swap out film reels. But beyond all of those logistical functions, it also serves a purpose to the story, providing a necessary palate cleanser before diving into the new act. Without that pause, it would feel awkward to see the arc descending to a close and then immediately ticking back up again. In other words, there needs to be a bit of a valley between the two mountains, much like in the second graph that I shared.
Dealing With Middling Ends)
In my current story I have just come to the end of an act. The action has descended from a climatic moment to a naturally low point, and I’m going to end the piece here, partly because it is such a fitting place to fade out from the story.
I did want to consider, though, how would I move forward if I did continue the story as it is written? That was what led me to conduct the research for this post, and now I have a pretty clear idea of how I would do it: via a palate cleanser.
I would make a hard shift away from Cace, Rolar, Aylme, and the water-entity, and I would go somewhere else for a short aside. Maybe there could be another set of characters that are also hidden in the same forest as the children, but who are dealing with problems of their own. And I would conclude their short vignette by introducing someone or something that will become significant to the main characters’ arc in the second act, thus helping to tie the two separate acts together.
But all of this is theoretical, because I’m not actually going to write that intermission and second act. I gave one of the reasons above: because there is a natural lull in the story, so this is the best moment to bow out, but there is another reason as well. I’ve enjoyed working on Covalent, but I’ve also run aground with it, where there is no way to move forward that I want to pursue. But that’s a topic for another day, come back next week as we dive into that.
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.
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.
Reis clasped his hands and paced back and forth, as if giving a lecture. “There is a new era coming. We all know this. The mentors train up the next generation, then must pass on and leave things to the next. The Order becomes the sole possession of the new, and they are not to be anchored by the follies of the past generation. They reinstate what laws they find worthy and they abandon the ones that are now antiquated. I think we all know…that time is coming soon. The elders have made it very clear that the Trials are nearly upon us, and it would be wise for us to consider how we will make the transition after they have passed.”
“The elders are not gone yet,” Tharol frowned. “It doesn’t feel right to talk of sweeping away their laws even while we’re under them.”
“Of course I’m not suggesting an insurrection,” Reis rolled his eyes. “We will be nothing but loyal servants so long as they are our elders. But my concern is that we might fracture ourselves after they are gone. Suppose we haven’t already worked out our philosophies beforehand, here and now, when it’s all just theory. Today it would be nothing more than competing ideals, but after we come into power it might be civil war!”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Did you have something controversial to propose?”
Reis matched the narrowing of the eyes. “I would think that you of all people should see the need for reform. Aren’t you always coming on the wrong side of Master Palthio?”
Tharol shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with this.”
“I know that there are reforms that you’ve considered. Things that you would like to change about how we do things in the Order. Like have a more proactive defense against the Invasion.”
“Curious. Even I don’t know what I want.”
“But we all heard you in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day…”
“I was asking questions. Perhaps there are flaws in our current system, I don’t know, but I also don’t know for sure what I would replace it with.”
Reis shook his head, realizing that he was quickly descending into yet another debate with Tharol, and that was not what he wanted here and now. This was supposed to be about him.
“Never mind all that,” he said. “The point is that now is the time for us to start raising our own banner. Of course we’re going to obey our elders,” he shot Tharol a dirty look, “but we can do that and start drawing lines for the future.”
“Like…lines of allegiance?” Bovik asked.
“Yes. Why not?”
“I don’t know,” Bovik looked sheepishly to the rest of his peers. “Aren’t we all on the same side already?”
“Of course we are,” Reis said shortly. “That’s the point. We’re already aligned to each other, and that gives us a solid foundation to formally unite under a common cause. Well why not make our pledge to that here and now? Why not give a solemn oath to continuing our cause and protecting our people?”
“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Bovik said with relief. “I thought you had meant electing a leader or something like that.”
“Bovik, I’m not sure that you’re bright enough to be here,” Reis let his irritation show. “Of course we would have a leader. Not a person, though, our leader would be our cause! However it may also be wise to elect one to safeguard that cause. Someone we could trust as a steward of its principles.”
“Well of course that would be you, Reis,” Marvi said sweetly. “And I’d be more than happy to give you my oath of loyalty right here and now!”
“Well how about it then?” Reis said to the others, leaping on top of a small, broken column. “Every order has its Senior Master, doesn’t it? The last thing I want to see is the elders pass on and we’re left with a mad scrabble for power. But if you’ll pledge your loyalty to me today, I’ll pledge my loyalty to governing rightly. Together we can make the future be what it should be.”
Marvi crowed her approval, and barely had she started than Inol echoed it, too. Bovik shouted his agreement quite loudly, no doubt to make up for any hesitancy he had shown earlier. One after another all of the youth shouted their assent.
Except for Tharol.
Reis pretended to not notice the one outlier, and leaped down to the ground, extending his hand, palm upwards.
“Let’s just make it official then, and after that I’ll be able to take you into my trust and show you another of Raystahn’s secrets.”
One-by-one the youth gathered in a circle, extending their hands to rest them, palm-downwards, on Reis’s. This time, Reis could not ignore the singular absence.
“Are you against us, then?” he shot viciously at Tharol.
Tharol shook his head. “It’s not like that Reis. It’s too early to be drawing lines for or against. We can have this conversation when the time is actually upon us, but this is premature.”
Reis opened his mouth, intending to shout something about how Tharol wasn’t welcome in this place anymore, but before he could the youth had already turned his back and started walking away.
“Hmm, never mind him,” Reis tried to shake off the slight to what was supposed to have been his unanimous coronation. “If the rest of you are ready…”
They all bowed their heads and recited in unison. “We place our strength upon you.” And then pressed slightly on his hand.
“I feel the weight of responsibility,” he replied, holding his own arm firm.
Tharol had barely stepped across the stone entryway of the monastery than Master Palthio approached him from an adjoining hallway.
“Ah, young Tharol, what a pleasant surprise,” the old man smiled. Tharol didn’t believe it for a moment. There was never any coincidence when it came to a meeting from Master Palthio, of this he was convinced.
“There is something you wanted to discuss with me?” he asked.
Master Palthio chuckled softly. “Ever the one for business, young Tharol. Walk with me.”
The two of them strode to the end of the entrance hall, then Master Palthio steered them towards the garden path.
“You truly are the most vigilant and attentive student I have ever seen, Tharol,” Master Palthio began.
Then why are you wasting time on opening pleasantries? Tharol thought to himself. He verbally said nothing. He found it was the best way to get people to move on to the actual purpose of their conversation.
“But I see you don’t care to discuss that,” Master Palthio nodded. “Tell me, Tharol, do you always feel a great impatience with the rest of us? That we take so long to come around to things of substance?”
It wasn’t the first time that Tharol wondered if Master Palthio was reading his thoughts, even though such was strictly forbidden.
“I just feel…” he paused, struggling to find the words. “I feel there isn’t enough time as it is already.”
“Mmm. You are weighed by a great deal, then. And afraid of what will be lost by our laxness?”
“Well…yes. I mean, I know that we ought to embrace the moment to its fullest, ought to be able to find the significance in all things.”
“You are just reciting canon now. You don’t believe these in your heart, do you?”
“Perhaps not. I think luxury and casual enjoyment are fine things…but we’re members of the Order, we’re the guard set to watch, aren’t we?”
“To watch what?”
“Why for the Invasion, of course?!”
“Mmm,” Master Palthio nodded, then continued in silence.
Tharol kept waiting for Master Palthio to resume speaking…but he did not. The old man just kept walking along as if he had no other intention than to enjoy this walk in silence with his pupil.
“Master, didn’t you–” Tharol finally ventured. “Surely, you had something else to talk to me about, Master?”
Master Palthio smiled softly. “You really don’t believe it possible that I just wanted to spend some time in your air, Tharol?”
“Well, I thought for sure you would be here to do something important.”
“And sharing your company could not have been what was important?” Master Palthio shook his head sadly. “When I speak of your vigilance and attentiveness, must that only be a segue to things of importance, and not the matter of importance itself? You are waiting for significance to come to this moment…and don’t consider that the moment itself was already significant.”
Tharol felt both touched and ashamed. He concerned himself with the study of his feet, not knowing what else he could possibly say to such a pronouncement.
“That is all the business I had Tharol. But if there is anything else that you wished to discuss with me, the rest of our walk is all yours.”
Tharol looked back up to his Master. An open invitation to discuss anything at all? One idea chased another through his mind. The strange creature growing in the maze, Reis trying to draw lines of loyalty among the students, Tharol’s struggle to find ‘the center inside him’ that his teachers spoke of, the impending Trials that the elders always spoke so gravely of. But above them all, there was one concern that arrested his mind more than all the others.
“Well…there is something, Master.”
Master Palthio smiled broadly. “I hardly assumed there wouldn’t be.”
“It’s a matter that I discussed briefly in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day. Perhaps you heard of our conversation?”
“Even if I did, I would rather we speak freshly from your perspective, not from some other, biased, second-hand account.”
“Oh yes…well…the conversation happened to be around the Imminence of Invasion, of how futile it is to try and prevent it, because the nature of man is to relent to it sooner or later. He was teaching how any semblance of control must be surrendered, and simply vigilance maintained instead.”
“You don’t sound particularly favorable towards that notion?”
“Well the thought occurred to me, that if the Invasion is not withstood, if it is a sure thing to come in its cycles, then what is there to prevent it from breaking out among those that are supposed to be vigilant?”
“You mean what if it began within our own Order.”
“I just think that if I were the Corrupt Mind, our monastery is the very first place I would focus all my efforts. Especially if I knew that our Order will do nothing to prevent it.”
“Do we not train minds?”
“But you see that as only a defense, and you would rather we take a more aggressive stance?”
“I know that is contrary to everything the Order stands for. But wars cannot be won by only defending, can they? At some time or another one must attack!”
“Hmm, you make an excellent point. I suppose the Order must be wrong.”
“I thought you’d be relieved. Don’t you feel a great burden lifted?”
“Because–I don’t mean to destroy the Order. Obviously I wasn’t arguing for that!”
“What if the Order should be destroyed? What if it’s entirely wrong?”
“I can’t accept that.”
“It’s–it’s the only foundation we have.”
“Mmm,” Master Palthio said again. “Quite a conundrum. Our Order is your foundation, but you find yourself at issue with some of its foundations.”
Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably.
“No, don’t feel that you must hide such misgivings. There is no shame in this. If each of the Masters was being honest with you, you would learn that we all have our difficulties with one of the Order’s precepts or another.”
“You have? Well…what do you do about that?”
“Oh dear, you have struck upon the question, now haven’t you? Let me see if I can provide a coherent answer. Give me a moment…”
They continued on in silence. An awkwardly long silence, one where Tharol began to wonder if Master Palthio had entirely forgotten their conversation. Just as Tharol was about to speak up Master Palthio answered.
"When I continue along my way And I come across a rock that I can push Then I push it And continue along my way.
When I continue along my way And come to a rock that I cannot push Then I go around it And continue along my way."
Whatever reaction Master Palthio expected, he evidently had not anticipated the utterly confounded look that Tharol now gave him. The old man’s face split into a wide grin and he laughed out loud.
“I’m sorry, I suppose that sounds like a riddle to you. But honestly I can’t think of a more complex answer that I can give to help you.”
“Complex?! I’m looking for something simple!”
“No, you’re not. You’re trying to tie yourself in a knot, connecting two competing beliefs together in one. You wanted me to give such a profoundly intricate solution that you could do just that. But I didn’t give you that. I gave you something too simple for you to abide. And I am sorry, but that it is still my answer. It is the only one I have to offer.”
“I–” Tharol shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t.”
“No, I see that. To be fair, there are few who can. And tell me, do you feel that this conversation has been fruitless?”
“I’m even more muddled than when we began!”
“I am not surprised. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you do not understand because you are not ready to. You have a notion in your head of what form the answers to your questions must take, and so long as you hold to those preconceptions, nothing that I can say to you will mean a thing. You will never find the words to make sense of a paradox.”
“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Tharol could not keep the frustration out of his voice.
“Stop being the paradox.”
And with that Master Palthio turned and walked away.
On Monday I spoke about how some stories began with an extended introduction, before they get to their main arcs. I suggested that my previous section in The Favored Son was just such an introduction, where we became acquainted with the world and characters, but really don’t have a catalyst to drive them forward.
Today we started to tease at those main arcs, as we explored Tharol’s struggle to understand his Order’s dogma, which suggests an arc that will resolve his dilemma. And, ultimately, the story will, but not in the way that he anticipates.
But we’re not fully into the meat of the story even now. We still have our great inciting incident yet to come, which will occur when we reach the Trials that turn pupils into masters.
Before we get to that, though, I want to take a look at my characterization of Master Palthio. The elder is written to be kindly, even-keeled, and assured. Whether or not the audience is not able to make sense of what he is saying, my hope is that they will feel like they should agree with him. Because he seems good-natured, we naturally assume that he is right. Just as we tend to take the advice of real-life people when we perceive them as having our own interests at heart.
There is a particular trick that I used to give Master Palthio the voice of truth, though. He calls out Tharol’s status as being exactly what we, the audience, have likely determined ourselves: the boy likable but conflicted. By having Palthio speak aloud the same notion as is in the reader’s mind, we trust him as having sound judgment.
With my next post I’d like to further examine this technique of setting up the reader to think something, echoing that thought in your story, and how this builds a connection between reader and writer. Come back on Monday to see how that turns out.
It was an interesting thing getting to know my wife. Of course I didn’t know that she was going to be my wife when I first met her. At first her role in my life was simply that of “intriguing woman.”
But as I said, it was interesting getting to know her, and it was because of how quickly she became integrated into my story. It was only a short time later, just a matter of months, that I came to realize she was now one of the most important individuals in my life. I remember at the time finding that a very strange thing. I realized that some of the conversations I was having with her were already more open and honest than I had ever had with another person. I had spent my whole life around other people, and I had always thought that I was very close to them. But now she came, and in a matter of months, not decades, knew me better than they did.
Many of our bonds in life are formed slowly, over the long march of time. The individual strands are woven together, one or two each day, until a powerful cord is formed. But this is not true for all of our relationships. Some of them come out of the blue and get straight to our roots, and do so almost immediately.
I had a similar experience when I started meeting with a therapist and a recovery group. The transition from complete strangers to intimate friends was, if possible, even more jarring here. Literally the same day that I met these people, I was disclosing things that I hadn’t been able to say to anyone else. In some cases, things I wasn’t even yet ready to say to my wife.
Over the next weeks, as each individual shared more and more of their story, I found myself being inserted into their experience. They were inviting me right into the formative years of their childhood, and I was inviting them into mine.
We became fast friends, in fact I consider them to be my best friends. And not because we’re the best of buddies who share so many common interests. In fact, to be frank, most of these people were not the friends that I would have chosen for me under normal circumstances. We all had very different hobbies, demographics, ages, and life philosophies. Under normal circumstances I would have considered them a nice acquaintance, but nothing more.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. These people were part of my story now. I had no choice but to love them.
Closure and Final Acts)
I believe one reason why we are able to grow close to people who have only just arrived in, is because our future is unknown. Since we do not know the exact path of tomorrow, it is entirely possible that this new face is a hinge that we are about to turn on. If something about the situation tells us that this person is significant, we pay attention.
Most of us have years left to live, after all, and that is plenty of time for a new face to start mattering to us very much. At any point of life we might be about to discover a new arc in our story.
But this doesn’t work so well in fictional stories. When new characters introduce themselves in the third act, we’re usually keenly aware that it is the third act, and therefore know that they only are here to help resolve the previous arcs, not to begin any new ones.
And yet…there is a way to introduce a new character at the very end of a story, and still have them be significant to it. The secret is not to have them introduce a new arc that ends before it begins, it is to have them tie directly into an already-existing arc, one that has been running ever since the beginning of the tale.
Roots in the Past)
An example of this would be the introduction of Private Ryan in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. The film goes on for a very long while before the character is revealed, with many twists and turns to get there. Indeed, by the time we meet him all of the characters have already concluded their arcs, or are ready to. The story doesn’t have time to raise any more questions, only to start answering them.
Thus it is that Private Ryan’s arrival ushers in the final act. Given how brief of a presence he has in the story, his own arc is very brief. There is only a small conflict that he must resolve, and the process of doing so is quite straightforward.
And yet, in spite of all this, Private Ryan does not feel like a tacked-on character who is only relevant to the finale. He feels absolutely integral to the entire tale that has transpired, even before he appeared on the screen. For even if his face has not been present, his shadow has been.
Because, you see, the entire film has been all about him, even without him there. The premise of the movie is that a squad is sent to find him and bring him home. Each adversity that they face to carry out that task, every loss they suffer, every companion who dies in the effort…all of it brings them back to the same question, over and over: is this sacrifice worth the saving of one man?
And the fact that he is an enigma through the majority of the film actually increases that tension, because they aren’t making the sacrifice for a friend, but for a complete stranger. So then it becomes a story about principles and morals, and whether those words have any meaning in the heart of a war.
Thus by the time Private Ryan shows up on the scene, we have already been discussing him a great deal, thinking about him a great deal, forming all manner of opinions about him. We feel that we already know him extensively, even though we’re just barely meeting him. He is a central character to the story, even if he graces it with his physical presence but for a moment.
In Raise the Black Sun I want to take this notion one step further. I am about to introduce a brand new character, one who I intend to feel interwoven with everything that has come before. Unlike Private Ryan she has not been spoken about by name, but she has been spoken about.
Because, you see, all throughout the story there has been a strong theme of a doomed fate. It has hung over every scene like a thick cloud about to burst. With the next section of my story I am going to introduce a young woman who will come to personify that theme to our main character. She will take everything that has been allegory, and put her face to it. So even though I have not spoken her name at any point previous, my hope is that it will feel like we were already talking about her the whole time, we just didn’t know it. Come back on Thursday to see if I’m able to pull that off.
I am on the cusp of completing my story: The Toymaker. In it a small drummer toy is born to life, and then sent to find a mystical city. Along the way he makes a friend in another toy, a dancing ballerina. Unfortunately, the two are divided from one another when the dancer is kidnapped, and taken into a grimy town full of dirty hovels. The drummer charges in pursuit, but is further waylaid as one toy after another takes advantage of him. He become dirty and cracked, and even his innocent demeanor slowly becomes more desperate and angry. Almost he loses himself, but stops just short of doing so. In that same moment he discovers a strange connection that he has with some divine power, and by it is finally led back to the dancer that he has been searching for.
There is, of course, one or two more sentences to that outline, but I’ll leave it off so that you can see it for yourself this Thursday. It is very strange for me to read that synopsis, though, because it is absolutely nothing like the one that I started off with!
Whenever I get an idea for a story, I open up a text editor and get it down in as much detail as possible. Usually the idea is so small that it only fills out one paragraph, but I hope to transfer enough information that I can remember the heart of it for later development.
One night, I was making up a bedtime story for my son about a toy factory. As I spoke to him, my mind suggested to me a different plot. After the bedtime ritual was finished, and I left his room, this is the brief outline that I wrote down:
The Toy Factory. Idea of a man building a world, bit-by-bit giving it greater abilities and rules. Eventually a rebellion breaks out amongst it, and he himself is lost within its depths. Perhaps he has forgotten who he is, or was created in toy form by his own creations, and so his consciousness has been transposed to that toy and he needs to remember his original identity.
The Castle-God. Some character has created a people and a world, little machinations that he kept around him, and which presently moved out to pursue their own ambitions. Now he still lives in that same castle, but forgotten and lonely in its massive halls. The character could be rediscovered, many generations later, having been fashioning a new set of creations all this time, ones to destroy the first.
So, as you can see, I was already of two minds about which direction this story could go, but in each rendition I had this idea of a creator regretting his creation. A godlike character whose subjects have all gone astray, and who is later tempted to use his powers to abandon or destroy them.
While working on this blog I shared an entry about responsibility, and I mentioned how Victor Frankenstein regretted the monstrosity he created, and sought to destroy it. I realized that this was very similar to my Toy Factory/Castle-God stories, and decided to expand on it with that theme. So I married the two together: the Toymaker would be refashioned as a mortal within the world of his own creation, would rediscover his omnipotent identity, and then would decide what responsibility he had to his subjects: either to spare them or create an army to destroy them.
And then, to this, I decided to add one more wrinkle. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the story started with him already in mortal form? That way his rediscovery of his divine identity would be as much of a surprise to the reader as to himself.
Things Go Awry)
Sometimes stories don’t follow their plotlines though. I started off with a simple introduction, one where I introduced the world of the toys, and explained how they began as inanimate objects that gradually gained self-awareness. I emphasized that fact, by having the drummer (who would later be revealed to be the creator) witness another toy, a ballerina dancer, come to life.
But now that I had created this second character, I felt that I had to do something with her. I made her his companion on his initial journey, and the two played off of one another quite nicely. I came up with ways that they supported and depended on one another, quickly making the two of them feel “right” together.
The thing is, up until now I had just been meandering about freely to get the feel of the world, but now I realized this dancer was taking up such a large percentage of the opening that she had to be a main character now. I wanted to start pushing the plot forward by showing how despicable the created world had become, and the most obvious way to do that was by having these two innocent companions ripped apart. It worked well, but now it only further cemented this random side-character, the dancer, as the main catalyst for our drummer’s journey.
Now the moment where imbalance occurs is with the loss of that dancer, so every reader naturally assumes the story will right itself with their triumphant reunion. I had created an expectation, and I couldn’t just shirk that.
The Story Fights Back)
Alright, fine, I thought, he goes and he gets her back, but then the story progresses as normal. But every time I tried to write their reunion it felt wrong. It was just too quick, too easy. I kept writing about him almost reaching her, but each time I had to pull the rug out from under him at the last moment. This was because I had written it so that the dancer was everything to that poor drummer. The quest to regain her needed to be appropriately epic.
Unless she died? I thought maybe this could be what compels him to find his powers and condemn the world. Just as he’s about to reach her she’ll be irrevocably broken and that will make him snap.
But where, then, is the responsibility? This isn’t a creator accepting the burden of his creation going astray anymore, this is an angry tyrant exacting terrible vengeance. Not what I was going for at all.
One solution might have been to go back to the start and take her out entirely, but I didn’t like that. She had emerged naturally and organically, and I liked her being in the story. Quite frankly I had become personally invested in her arc, and really wanted to see where it would land.
And so, it was in this very problem that I also found my solution. Her becoming broken and him going into a rage was not going to serve a story about a god’s responsibility to his people, but it her being broken would serve a story about a little drummer’s responsibility to the toy that he loves.
The story had not been stalling on its first chapter, rather it had turned that first chapter into the entire story. It isn’t the story of how he regains boundless power, it is the story of how he makes amends to the dancer he could not save.
Maybe the bigger story still exists, but if so it is a tale for another time. With that in mind, I knew how I needed to close things. Only after great effort, after nearly losing himself but then calling himself back, only then would he be ready to rejoin the dancer. And in that moment, he would find her broken.
Not only broken, though, but angry. Angry at the world, angry at herself, and angry at him. The climax of the story will be how he hears that anger, and how he takes responsibility for it. I like this approach quite a lot, and I am excited to share it with you on Thursday. Then, at long last, we will be on to something new.
On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.
The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.
The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.
Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.
But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.
I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.
Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.
In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.
But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.
Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.
Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.
In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.
Easier to Critique Than Write)
As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?
I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.
Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.
And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.
This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”
How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”
Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.
But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.
Phisherman and Back to the Future)
When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.
So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.
That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!
The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)
In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.
Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.
This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.
Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)
Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.
Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.
You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.
Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!
There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.
Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.
But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.
And potions? Yes.
Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.
Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.
What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!
Well what would those look like?
You get the picture.
To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.
It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.