Raising the Stakes

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Quality over Quantity)

There is a common misconception in storywriting that the more lives that hang in the balance, the more important the story is. Consider the sequel that has to up the ante on the chapter that came before, and does so by simply expanding the region of impending destruction. First a village is being threatened, then a nation, finally the entire world. I’ve mentioned this trend in a prior post.

Now there’s nothing wrong in a sweeping epic with massive armies clashing into one another and the fate of the entire world on the line. Writers just need to be sure that they aren’t falling for tired clichés, or trying to use “epicness” to compensate for an otherwise weak narrative. If the entire world is at risk it should only be because that is what is needed for the story to work.

The other thing writers need to be aware of when setting their sights so high is that this might not be the most effective method of getting readers to care about their story. Quite frankly you don’t need genocide to give a story weight, you only need to threaten a single character that you have made the audience care about. That’s the key to truly giving your stories meaningful stakes: quality over quantity.

 

Examples)

This notion has been wonderfully illustrated in the comic-book movie: Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Here the main protagonist is mortally wounded and another character, Liz, journeys to the Angel of Death to save him. There she is cautioned that his survival will ultimately doom all of humanity, to which she replies she doesn’t care, she just wants him restored. In real life this would be a choice of immense selfishness, but in the context of the story we, like Liz, care far more for the individual we know than the countless ones we don’t. To us the characters we have met and interacted with are actual persons and all the masses are nothing more than set dressing.

Consider also the mistreatment of Tom Robinson, Jem, and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these characters is menaced by a local, bitter man: Bob Ewell. Though the entire story takes place in a sleepy, little town with only a few lives hanging in the balance, we feel greatly affected nonetheless. Not in spite of its quiet, low-scale realism, but because of it. We feel incensed at the prejudice shown against Tom Robinson because we know such injustices really do happen. We are terrified by Jem and Scout being attacked on the road from school, because that is a very real fear for all with children.

And the tension is all the higher because of the close intimacy of the villain to his victims. Were Bob Ewell a war-mongering tyrant sweeping through the land with a grand army he would have been far less unnerving. There is something chilling about the frankness of a solitary drunk staggering through the woods at night.

Even when writing a story that is larger than life, you still need strong, individual characters that the reader cares deeply about. The bigger action will only be affecting insofar as it applies to those individuals you care for. Consider the film Patton, which features an epic scene where the general fields thousands of men and machinery against another army in vicious battle. The drama of this scene only lands because it has been preceded by one of Patton standing alone in the street, wielding a handgun against a swooping fighter jet. We have seen the depth of that man’s private commitment, and that leads us to care about his triumph in the greater war.

 

Implementations)

In each of my stories during this last series I have tried to focus primarily on the small and intimate relationships over the large and abstract. Let us consider the ways I implemented smallness into the bigger picture.

With the Beast had a very limited cast of only five individuals. And one of those individuals, the reader, is an invisible observer of the other four. Essential to working with a small cast is that each must have a very distinct voice. John was the voice of wisdom and stability, William was drive and ambition, Clara was innocence and naiveté, Eleanor was compassion and concern. The very first thing I did upon introducing these characters was to illustrate these fundamental differences. If readers are going to connect with your core characters they have to understand them, and the more distinct those characters are the faster that understanding will be established.

The Heart of Something Wild also featured only a few core characters, but additionally an entire tribe stood in the background. Here I found myself in an interesting situation where I needed the audience to care about that tribe, but at the same time keep my work within the short story format. I didn’t have enough time to really bring the community to life for the reader, and so I used a compromise. I instead tried to earn the audience’s affection for the main character, Khalil, and then asked them to inherit his concern for the tribe. Whenever a reader makes a connection with a character, they will naturally come to care for the things that that character cares for, just as with Patton and his war.

In Glimmer I have had the same conundrum repeat itself. Reylim has come to Nocterra to ignite it and allow for countless generations to live their lives, and so the fate of the entire world really is hanging in the balance. I knew that it would be impossible to quantify the weight of that, so instead I chose to focus on individuals. I even explicitly state that the mission here is not about the world, it is about Reylim’s personal growth and development. I only ask the reader to invest in Reylim, with the understanding that the fate of the world will simply be a byproduct of her own development.

In just this last section I finally allowed Reylim and the reader to witness the lives that she was fighting for. I knew I didn’t want to do this with a meaningless montage of the masses, though, so again I limited myself, this time with a sample of three intertwined souls. Their story was meant to be a representation of all the rest of humanity, and as such incorporated timeless themes of love, jealousy, regret, atonement, and closure. In this way the focus of my story remained personal and intimate, but also made the whole world matter more.

 

It seems that people are excellent at extrapolating the masses from a small selection. Usually when we see a group of people all we see is a group, but when we see a single individual we see a representation of all mankind.

So if you want the reader to care about the bigger picture, all you need to do is extract from those masses a smaller representation of characters and make the audience care for them instead. And if you don’t have a bigger picture, don’t worry about it. It may make for a more exciting movie trailer to see huge armies pouring into one another’s ranks, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. There can still be a sense of epic importance in the struggle of an individual soul. Indeed, I would argue such stories are usually far more weighty than those about the thousands.

On Thursday I will post the fourth segment to the Glimmer story, and in it I intend to make the action firmly focused on Reylim and her own personal journey. I’ll see you there.

Glimmer: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Reylim ran across the barren land once more. She had been invigorated by Glimmer’s words of encouragement, and then a second time by its restorative abilities.

There, that should be much better. Currently Glimmer was situated on top of her lower leg, coursing its light into the gash there and accelerating the closing of the wound.

“It feels much better,” Reylim agreed. “What about you now? You’ve lost so much of your light in helping me.”

It will restore itself. With time.

Reylim nodded. She would have to avoid any more encounters with the void then, something she was more than happy to do. Knowing that it was her own fear and anxiety that summoned the dark forms to consume her was far from reassuring. If anything it only made her fearful and anxious of her fears and anxieties. And certainly she still wasn’t convinced that she had the fortitude to wrest a victory from the infinite sway of the void, but she had at least resolved to follow the path as it lay before her.

And that path was evolving. Where before the landscape had been massive stretches of flat and barren rock, the topology had now become far more tumultuous. Now the land rose and fell in small hills and valleys, with new vegetation in the form of thin-limbed, sprawling bushes. That wasn’t all, either. Once every so often she came across a thin tower of jagged rock that had been thrust high into the air, like a giant’s dagger pierced through the earth and into the sky. Of course that sky still remained a mystery to her. Glimmer’s light was restoring as promised, but she still couldn’t see more than a few hundred yards in any direction.

The first of these strange rocky towers caught Reylim by surprise, there had been nothing like this on her homeworld. She had circled it a few times, trying to understand how and why it had come to be, but at Glimmer’s gentle prodding she had continued onward.

As Glimmer explained, they were nearing the slopes of a great mountain, at the peak of which they were destined to find the Nexus that they sought. This information was further supported by moments of sudden inclines in the land, the skirts of that mountain. Some of these rises were steep enough that Reylim was forced to scrabble up them on all fours.

Just after clearing one of these risings and coming to a momentarily flat portion of the land she found another item of great intrigue before her. What she had at first taken for another strange outcropping of rocks gradually revealed itself to be basic stone huts. As she moved towards them she was able to make out the entrances in their sides, the large firepit in the center of the community, and even paths beaten down by the foot traffic leading to and from them.

“Glimmer…” she said incredulously, “I thought all the living beings here were frozen, unable to accomplish anything.”

That is correct. These are shadows of what will be here one day if these people are ignited. This is not the first one we have passed.

“It isn’t?”

No, you simply were not able to observe them before. You are still acclimating to our lands. Do you see the machine off to the right as well?

Reylim glanced to the side and saw nothing. She was about to say so when out of the blank rockscape she suddenly distinguished a large, strange structure. It was made of some extremely flexible metal, so much so that it was able to contort its shape at will, bringing different parts of itself to join together. Wherever its points touched a small residue of molten steel was left behind, and by one union after another the machine was slowly fabricating some mechanism. Reylim did not fully understand what it was she saw, but she could tell it was very advanced, even beyond anything on her own world. She was also sure that this scene was also from an entirely different time period than the stone huts before her.

And do you see the people?

Reylim turned back to those huts, and as she did so passed she saw that what she had at first taken for lumpy texture on the walls of the hovels were actually people frozen in time. They were humanoid, like her, but with a perfectly bland and gray color, with their lower halves only partially formed and fused into the ground beneath. It made it seem as though they were erupting directly out of the rock itself.

“Can they move? Talk?”

If you keep watching them they might.

Reylim moved up close, peering into their faces. She was particularly taken by the three that were nearest to her, two men and a woman. At first their faces were blank and featureless, utterly indistinguishable, but the longer she watched the more she saw personality etch its way across them.

“This one looks so regretful,” she said thoughtfully. “And this other is longing. Who are they? What would they become if they were awake?”

They would be among the earliest of the civilizations to live in this world. Born and raised together in this little village. These three specifically are the closest of friends through their youths. The two men are Avaro and Tuni, and as they mature both come to love the woman, Elitra. Both of them try to win her heart in their own way.

“Whom does she choose?”

Avaro. Tuni is a more wild and unpredictable man, and Elitra tells him she has to make a choice that she feels safe with. Tuni takes that very hard, and in his impetuous jealousy he contrives to send Avaro away to war.

“There is a war?”

Yes. There is a horde roaming the land and all the neighboring villages are raising a militia to resist it. Their own village is mandated to contribute a dozen men to the fight. The selection is supposed to be random, as the chance for survival is quite low, but Tuni manages to engineer things so that Avaro will be one of the ones selected. Immediately after his friend leaves Tuni is overcome with regret and soon confesses everything to Elitra. She promises to never forgive him, and then, in her grief, she poisons herself.

“Oh!”

She does not die, but she becomes incapable of motion or communication. She remains an invalid for the rest of her life. Then, doubly burdened with guilt, Tuni resolves to care for her. He takes her into his own home and for the rest of their lives he tirelessly nurtures her. He feeds her, he cuts her hair, he even carries her to all the places she had loved the best.

“What of Avaro?”

He finds his true calling as a great warrior. He defends their lands against unimaginable odds and saves their entire people from annihilation on numerous occasions. One time he returns to the village and Tuni confesses his crimes to him. Avaro is upset, of course, though he does forgive him for the wrongs done to him. As he explains, in the war he has found his true purpose, to protect and watch over all the people he loves.

“Butyou said Elitra never recovers?”

Her mind is a haze, drifting between strange dreams and then back to reality. When she is present in the moment she observes all that Tuni does. Though she lacks the capacity to tell him, she does in time forgive him. She feels he has paid the price for whatever wrongs he has done, and she acknowledges that it was her own choice to take the poison.

There was a moment of silence while Reylim took in the tale. She was not accustomed to looking into a person’s face and know their entire life story. As she did, though, she found herself believing that their various destinies suited them.

“I think these people deserve to have their lives, Glimmer. I really would like for them to have the chance to live them.”

I know it has been hard for you to have so much asked, and for people you have not even been able to see. Do know that this world is full with souls just as these. And every single one of them will be following you.

“Following me? I thought you were the spark to ignite them all.”

And I am a Glimmer, but you are a person. Therefore they will always relate to your experience more than mine.

“They will know my story?”

Parts of it will be made known to them. Mostly they will know of it in their hearts without understanding why. They will feel it stir them when they hear the hero’s call and know how to answer it though none has taught them. It will be your song, re-sung in each of them when they discover what they born to be.

Reylim’s eyes were misty and she was looking for adequate words to respond.

“YOU FILTH!”

The screech pierced the air and made Reylim jump in fright. She had become entirely unaccustomed to hearing any other voices, let alone one laced with such hate. She spun around and saw another of the planet’s natives. This one was more defined than the rest. He was a grizzled and thick man, coarse stubble lining his face and ragged clothes hanging from his skin. He was struggling against the last remaining parts of stone that fused him to the ground, and as she watched he managed to wrench one of his feet free from its roots. He alternated between tugging at his other leg and jabbing his finger at her, spit spraying from his mouth as he shouted.

“So you’ve come at last, have you?! You would bring to pass ages of suffering? Of death? Of hurt and abuse?!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered, her heart still racing from his sudden hostility.

“Didn’t you hear what it–” he jabbed towards Glimmer– “said about that man Avaro? Sent away to a war. To war! Do you see any war on this land today?”

“There is nothing here today.”

“So let there be nothing!” The man had managed to free his other leg, and was attempting to walk towards Reylim. She easily kept him at a distance as his every movement was stiff and slow. “The Glimmer goes on about heroes and legends and ‘becoming who you were born to be.'” He spat dark bile onto the earth. “But how do such things come to be? Forged by cruelty and plague and killing the innocents!”

“What is he talking about?” Reylim turned to Glimmer.

Thous she could not hear it, she felt a heavy sigh from Glimmer. My great purposes are twofold, Reylim. To secure living peace, and to raise heroes among mankind. This man, Bolil will be his name, is speaking to the fact that there can never be any heroes without opposition for them to rise against. There must be conflict for people to ever fight the tide and become their greatest selves.

“And you…you create the conflict?”

“Yes!” Bolil hissed.

No! Glimmer’s message came forcefully. Only the void creates conflict. As we ignite this world it pulls against the light and summons up the worst of mankind. You have seen for yourself how it operates: crippling through doubt and fear. It sows these through war and depravity.

“It does not do these things now.” Bolil protested. “It lets us sleep in perfect peace. You have felt the lull of that sweet emptiness girl, haven’t you?”

“You know the void?” Reylim asked.

The void possesses him. You can see it in the pits of his eyes. Bolil, you do not rest for you do not exist. Not yet. The void promises a dead peace, I provide a living one. Reylim herself has witnessed it on her own world.

“That’s why we are sent out to other worlds?” Reylim suddenly had an epiphany. “There is no opposition on our own by which to become the heroes you want us to be?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Bolil interrupted. His movement had become more natural, and he was now advancing at a strong pace, dark clouds circling around void points within his eyes. “Glimmer, void, perhaps there is peace at either end, but unimaginable suffering in between. Let Glimmer keep the worlds that are fully illuminated and let the void keep those that are dark.”

Reylim had continued backing away until she pressed up against one of the stone huts. She took a single step forward, allowing herself a little space in each direction should Bolil attack. Her hand was on her hip, ready to draw her dagger if needed.

“Peace through nonexistence?” she asked incredulously. “Isn’t even a life of suffering greater than no life at all? Don’t you deserve your chance to be? Don’t all these people?”

“Little girl,” Bolil smiled darkly, “Glimmer told you my name but not what I am.”

He’s a murderer.

In a flash Bolil had drawn a sword out that he had somehow hidden in the folds of his rags. Just as quickly he swept it down at Reylim with an alarming swiftness. She barely managed to get her own weapon out and caught his blade with the notch of her dagger’s hilt. He was a great deal larger than her, and with a lot more force to bring to bear, so she allowed herself to roll backwards, kicking out with her foot to roll him over her and into the wall behind.

Reylim rolled over to her front and then pushed up to her feet, falling back into a defender’s stance. She was shocked to find Bolil already rushing her again, evidently unfazed by the knock he had just received.

She flicked her knife into an overhand grip and swiped out in a wide arc in front of her. It cut across him in a broad swath, but instead of exposing flesh the wound merely revealed torrents of the black void. Bolil’s hand curled around her throat like a vise, his eyes flashing darkness.

“You can fight this little girl, but that will only extend the struggle and the pain.” Bolil’s voice was strange, distorted and almost mechanical. “Do you understand now? The sooner we embrace the emptiness the less suffering there will need to be.”

She gurgled as he lifted her off of the ground, but then noticed a calming warmth wash over her.

You cannot have her, void.

Reylim felt herself burgeoning with power as Glimmer settled over her heart, leaking pure light into her form. She kicked out at Bolil’s chest, thrusting with such force that his grip was easily broken. She flipped backwards through the air, landing cat-like on her hands and feet.

Rather than charge again Bolil let out a long, strange cry. As he did so, dark void spilled out, pooling on the ground around him and lashing out in tentacles, reaching for the bodies of other villagers. As each was touched they started coming to life, wincing and covering their eyes against the light that emanated from Glimmer.

There are countless armies of these shadows ready to be infused with the void. A battle is useless.

“To the Nexus, then?”

Yes. And as quickly as possible. They know exactly why we’re here and where we’re going, every moment will only give them greater opportunity to overrun us!

Part Four
Part Five

***

On Monday I spoke of the characters that are not mere individuals, but manifestations of some deeper unseen entity. In Glimmer my intention was to create such a character in the form of the void. With today’s entry we met an individual that was not the void itself, but was a servant to it, and was infused with its power.

The allegory here is obvious, there are individuals that we call evil, but then there is the question of evil itself. There is a long philosophical debate whether that evil only exist in the hearts of men or if it exists without them. If all men were to let go of their worst parts would evil’s influence cease, or does evil sustain itself whether or not there are those to practice it? Put another way, is the devil a real being, or do we invent him within ourselves? In the world of Glimmer the void is real, but imperceptible until it interacts with more corporeal forms. Everything that is to be understood about the void is by examining the periphery around it rather than the thing itself.

Using a few representations, such as Bolil, to give the reader a hook into something larger and more abstract is a common technique in storytelling. We are incapable of comprehending an entire war, for example, but by following a select few soldiers we get a general sense of the whole. This way of reducing scope to something more personal and intimate can even raise the stakes on the bigger picture, by how it makes us care for the individuals that we can relate to. I’d like to explore that notion in greater detail with my next post on Monday. Then, on the following Thursday, we will have the next segment of Glimmer ready. I’ll see you then.