Self-Contradictions

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Disproving Your Own Point)

Very early on in The Matrix, we have established to us that the “Agents” are too powerful to be fought against. To stand your ground against them is to certainly die. Multiple times this idea is re-emphasized: “if you see an Agent…you run.”

And so it seems an unthinkable thing when Neo states that he is going to go back into The Matrix to free his mentor Morpheus, who is being interrogated by three of those very Agents. Neo feels that he must do this, though, because Morpheus has only come to this fate because of a misplaced belief. Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One, the being that is destined to save mankind, the only individual who will ever stand a chance of defeating an Agent, and also the computer overlord that they represent.

But Neo is not the One. He is convinced of this, and he cannot have it on his conscience for Morpheus to die for an invalid cause. If he were the One, he would be able to go in there, rescue Morpheus, and save the day. But he is not the One, and so he will go in there, rescue Morpheus, and willingly die to make the trade.

What Neo is not accounting for is that is exactly the sort of selflessness that defines being “the One.” Being “the One” is not so much about having an inherent power, as the ability to break preconceived notions and rules. The rule is “if you see an Agent, you run,” and he is breaking it. He is not running, which means he isn’t the run-of-the-mill side character that he thinks he is. By proving his non-Oneness, he actually achieves the opposite.

Catch-22)

Which, of course, is a Catch-22. It is a rare thing for the title of a book to also be the definition of an entirely new term, but the idea at the heart of this novel is so engrossing and so succinct that it was inevitable. The story is chock full of Catch-22s, and it explains to the reader just what it means to be “Catch-22.”

It means a paradox. A very special situation where to obtain what one wishes, one must make the obtaining of that wish impossible. Yossarian does not want to fly any more suicide missions for the military, and he knows that he can accomplish this if he proves that he is mad. However attempting to be insane for the purpose of being thrown out of the military only proves how truly sane and fit to fly suicide missions he must be. If he were truly insane, he would undertake the missions with a cool head. Either way, he’s stuck.

Condemning Oneself)

This reminds me somewhat of a situation in the story Les Miserables. Here, runaway convict Jean Valjean has successfully created a new identity for himself under the name of Monsieur Madeleine. He has become known for his warmth and generosity, and has even been made the Mayor of a city. He has genuinely good intentions, and truly lives as a different man from the cold brute he was when in the labor camps.

Things become difficult for him, then, when his former guard at that camp comes to the city. Javert is initially unable to recognize the old convict in the guise of this refined gentlemen, but Valjean is still very careful to not reveal the truth.

Then, one day on the streets, Valjean’s deception is put to the test. A man has become trapped beneath a heavy cart. Monsieur Madeleine, the benevolent master, ought to try and help him, and Jean Valjean, the hardened criminal, has the immense strength necessary to lift the cart all on his own. But Javert is present at this scene, and if he witnesses such a feat of strength he will surely wonder where it might have come from. Valjean is a man divided. The only way to be true to himself is to condemn himself. Ultimately he rushes to the rescue, and just as anticipated, Javert realizes who this Governor really is.

The Tragic Wanter)

There is another example of this in the Disney animated feature Aladdin. Jafar has a terrible lust for power, one that constantly moves from one lofty goal to another. He is already the Royal Vizier, but now he wants to be Sultan. He becomes Sultan, but then wants to be “the most powerful sorcerer in the world.” Still that isn’t enough, and he craves the infinite power of being a Genie.

But as it turns out, while Genies do possess unfathomable power, they are powerless to control it. They are eternally enslaved beings, only able to flex their power at the behest of a master. Thus Jafar’s pursuit of his most enhanced self only leads to the loss of himself.

This, too, is the downfall of Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles picture Citizen Kane. The title character is intelligent and motivated, he possesses a winning personality and good looks, fate has even smiled on him with opportunity and fortune. He has it all, but he is miserable and distrusting even so. In spite of all his having, he is afraid of losing, and so he strives to have more firmly, and paradoxically it is due to that grasping that he ends up losing what he had.

Take, for example, his relationship to Emily Norton, and later to Susan Alexander. Each of these women is perfectly content to love him, but he keeps trying to buy their affections even so, to push them to greater happiness and fulfillment, smothering them until there doesn’t seem to be anything sincere left to their romance any more. And so it continues until each of the women that he has leaves him.

In my own story, I have written a character who has also painted himself into a corner. Julian gave in to a moment of temptation and ate extra portions of food that belonged to his shipmates. He assured himself at the time that they would not survive anyway, and no one could therefore condemn him for the crime.

But they did survive. Now Captain Molley has awoken, and Julian’s greatest fear is that he will be found out for his treachery. So he has lied, suggesting that Captain Molley has been asleep for a number of days, which explains why there are more portions of food missing.

As we will see in my next post, though, this lie will lead Captain Molley to give up on their search for the fabled Pirate’s Cove. He will assume that if they have drifted aimlessly for so many days, that any attempt to navigate to such a small destination is impossible.

Thus Julian finds himself in quite the pickle. Does he come forward with the truth, and damn himself as a food-thief? Or does he remain silent, and damn the whole crew to wander without any course? Either way he has broken himself. Come back on Thursday to see exactly how this will play out in the story’s finale.

Setting the Mood

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What is Mood?)

Every story has a mood, just some of them are intentional. Mood is something that is a difficult to pin down directly, because it always hangs in the background of a scene, forever just out of focus. In a single sentence you have a subject and an object, but neither of those are the mood, they are directly in the forefront. The adjectives and adverbs get you a bit closer to the mood, but still not all the way. The word “chilling” might be used in a thriller to describe the appearance of the villain, or in a romance novel to describe the temperature of rain the two lovers reconcile under.

Mood isn’t necessarily defined by what is happening then, it is more the way it is being told. Mood can sometimes be strongly evoked by a single sentence, but most commonly it is an ineffable quality that is conjured up by the combination of entire chapters, all contributing together to the story’s particular tone.

And sometimes the mood of a story is affected by more than the words alone, summoned by the very physical nature of its pages. My family owned an old copy of Oliver Twist, probably published sometime before 1940. The pages were all yellow, gave off a deep, musty smell, crackled as they were opened, and so seemed to literally exude the adventures of a bygone era.

Another way to think of mood is that it would be the music of a story. Usually the score of a film never breaks into the foreground of the action, instead providing subtle cues directly to your subconscious. Mood, like background music, is the artist sending you a silent message of what you are supposed to be feeling at this particular moment in time.

No amount of polishing a story is going to make up for a lack of mood either. The way I know that my work is lacking an evocative mood is when reading it leaves the overall sensation of “it’s nice and all…but flat.”

Usually the solution for this is rewriting scenes to have the same temperature across them. The fact is my “flat” work does have moods, every story does, it just is that those moods are so inconsistent that they never have enough space to actually permeate the story. If one sentence is happy, the next is sad, and the next is angry, none of the emotions are able to actually land.

I’ve seen many other stories, too, that are comprised of many fascinating and engaging chapters when taken individually, but when combined together jerk the reader back and forth so quickly it gives them whiplash. Now and again it is fine to place two opposite sensations back-to-back for contrast, but you don’t want to be placing them back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

On the other hand, let us consider the atmosphere so effectively summon by George Orwell in his dystopian fantasies. These are worlds that feel sterile, monotone, and emotionless. Pristine machinations serving a totalitarian state where everything is clinically regulated and suppressed. How does he begin his novel 1984?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Bright and cold, they convey an immediate blandness, not only in their meaning, but also in being such short and to-the-point sort of words. The mention of clocks whose churning gears represent the machinations of the superstructure. The fact that they are striking thirteen instead of 1 PM conveys a military mentality. The mind does not necessarily process all of these facts, though, the reader simply feels them. And so Orwell’s signature mood is established, and then maintained by the story’s persistent reinforcement.

 

The Need for Variety)

But, of course, while some stories are famously known for how they evoke a single mood, the fact is that all of them are actually comprised of a great many moods throughout. To leave a reader steeped too long in a single state of emotion would soon dull the entire experience, making them incapable of still recognizing that overall mood. Therefore even the most tragic of stories needs to have moments of hope and levity to make the return of despair have its bite again.

And so it turns out that establishing mood is all about maintaining a balance of variation. Too little variation smothers the reader in blandness, but too much variation then smothers the reader in chaos. We want to journey to our destination and have the scenery change around us as we go, but mostly at a rate of just one sequential step after the other.

Let’s look at a classic example of a story with a strongly defined mood, that of Catch-22. The novel is famous for its lighthearted and flamboyant style, its many contradictions and paradoxes. The very idea of the “catch-22,” a situation in which two things simultaneously depend upon but also prevent one another, is already such a humorous concept that it easily pervades throughout all the rest of the novel. The mood is undoubtedly insane, but somehow cheerfully so.

But then, there are somber cracks that now and again appear beneath the insanity. The reality that some characters are dying, that planes are being shot down, that these men are facing death as their regular, daily routine. Eventually the mirthful craziness breaks apart and the final act is famously dark and depressing. Previously glossed over brutalities come into stark relief and the real catch-22 is the notion of depending on war to bring about peace.

By giving each section of his book adequate space to breathe, but also by allowing cracks of each to appear in the other, Heller is able to walk that fine line between having both a consistent mood, but also enough variety to flavor the whole.

Also, never forget that a single well-seasoned sequence will leave a lingering taste in the segments that follow. An example of this can be found in a small section from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Specifically it is the portion dealing with the Demeter, a Russian ship that runs aground entirely bereft of any crew. The Captain’s journal is read and it gives the chilling account of one man in the crew disappearing after another, each seemingly plucked from their number by the devil himself.

Finally the Captain knows he is the last remaining, knows that the unseen vampire must soon be coming for him, and so he lashes himself to the wheel and waits. The nightmarish suspense creates a mood so evocative that it colors the story long after the episode passes. Though the following details of Lucy’s illness do not involve any of the members of that disappeared crew, their shadow looms over it, the mood still fresh in the reader’s memory.

 

 

It is easy to make the mistake of writing a story without any consideration for mood, to just focus on characters and scenes, and then at the end wonder why it somehow doesn’t have the cohesion you had hoped for. I would argue that consistent tone is the number one differentiator between narrative worlds that feel like they are composed of living, breathing environments and the ones that feel like they’re cobbled together with cardboard cutouts.

For my next short story piece I have only a very light outline: two characters wash ashore, one of them is pursuing the other. But what I do have a a clear idea of is the mood I want the piece to be saturated with: one of grim conflict, two beings that are locked into their own mutually assured destruction, brought from distant lands to wreak their havoc upon a quiet and idyllic countryside. Come back on Thursday to see how it all comes together, and have a wonderful week until then!