The Watering Hole

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A Calm Amidst the Storm)

There is a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which the main character has trespassed onto forbidden lands and seeks the aid of a disembodied demon. He presents a young woman who has been sacrificed and pleads for her soul to be returned to her body. He is told that his wish may be granted…but only if he is able to defeat sixteen colossi in battle, each of which is scattered across the land. A very dangerous undertaking to be sure, but one that he will gladly face to save her.

And so he goes out, toppling one giant monstrosity after another. And at the conclusion of each battle he falls unconscious, only to awaken back at the hall where he has laid the young woman’s body on an altar. Each time he awakens the exact same ritual commences: the statue representing the most-recently-dispatched colossus bursts into pieces, the disembodied voice tells him where he must go to face his next quarry, and the boy sets off to fulfill the task. It a scene very reminiscent of Hercules returning to King Mycenae after each of his labors to receive the next piece of his penance.

Over and over the pattern repeats in Shadow of the Colossus. Each chapter is book-ended by this same return to the hall and altar. You become very familiar with this place, and in its repetition it starts to become personally meaningful. The cavernous chamber, the flowing staircase, the never-ending bridge…without even trying to one starts memorize every little detail. This place starts to feel like home.

In a game otherwise filled with danger and tragedy this is a most welcome respite. Each new challenge features new settings, new dangers, new puzzles. They can become quite taxing and fraught with frustration. But that’s alright, because each of them is also set apart from the others by this singular moment of reprieve. Like Hercules, each new task may be a novel and difficult experience, but the hero is able to feel safe and comfortable for a brief while before trekking out once more.

A Shortcut to Pacing)

Even the most exciting of stories needs moments of calm. A story that is only made up of intense action will soon fail to have any impact, it will lose its voice within its own noise. There has to be variety, there has to be escalation and de-escalation.

And returning to a familiar setting is one of the quickest ways to bring the tempo back to a calm state. Soothing background music can help, soft voices can help, warm colors can help…but the best thing of all to calm the audience’s nerves is to put them in walls that are well-known and safe. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, you want them to have a place that just feels like home.

And one medium that is especially able to make a place feel familiar and safe is the television show. By having episodes strewn over a period of years, developers have great opportunity to repeat settings until they are second-nature to us. And when one of those familiar places is reserved for scenes that are always calm and happy, then the viewer starts to feel better just by being there.

And so in Star Trek: The Next Generation a favorite haunt is Ten-Forward, the futuristic bar where characters come to share a drink and a little bit of gossip. Other places on the ship are often subject to laser blasts and torpedoes, but Ten-Forward, by contrast, is usually the setting where characters only come after all the chaos is past. It is a place for quietly reminiscing, for exploring relationships, for casual words.

Episodes of MASH might be fraught with wartime violence, overbearing stress, and the looming specter of death…but regularly the cast will come back together for a friendly game of Poker in Hawkeye’s tent. No matter how chaotic things are elsewhere, the Poker night immediately resets the tone to something calm and safe.

Every episode of the old Mission: Impossible series is fraught with spies, deception, and danger. But each episode also begins in a calm apartment where the team methodically plan out their disguises and test their equipment. It is only a brief segment in each episode, but it always allows the audience to settle into the plot from a familiar setting.

A Shifted Perspective)

However, regularly returning to a familiar scene does not only have to be used to reset the audience’s emotions. Sometimes returning to an old haunt can actually be used to illustrate just how different the characters within it have become. Yes the setting is familiar, but the spirit of it feels entirely new.

Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in A Christmas Carol. Throughout the tale Ebenezer keeps leaving and returning to this place, and each time the room is completely the same as before. And it is that sameness that makes his own personal change stand out in stark relief.

We are first introduced to it when he comes home from a long day of work, sets the many locks on its door, and takes a supper of gruel in the dark. It is a mean and meager place, thrifty to the point of oppressiveness, and it is in perfect harmony with the man that lives in it.

Then the visitations from the spirits begin, and Christmas Past takes Ebenezer down a painful walk of his own memories. We see his life laced with one regret after another, until he refuses to continue the journey any further, and forcibly returns back to his bedroom. He is filled with deep relief to be back home, and suddenly we see the room how he sees it: not meager and dark, but close and safe. In its confinement he feels secure. It is his fort to keep out all the outside world, and all the pain of his past. For the first time, we pity him.

Next comes the visit of Christmas Present, who shows him how much more mirth and love is occurring outside of these walls on Christmas day. Scrooge finally starts to long for more, and the dankness of his hovel is emphasized even more than before.

Finally Christmas Future comes, and of all the places that he could show Ebenezer, he shows him the future version of this very same bedroom. It is the room, after Ebenezer has died.

This is the only time the room actually changes, and we are shocked to find that it is able to become even more bleak than before, with bed curtains stolen and a single sheet laid over a solitary, lonely corpse.

And then, after that moment of absolute darkness, we return to the room once more as it is today, and by contrast it now seems a place of life and hope. In fact the sun is raising, and the windows are thrown open to let that light in. Ebenezer is still alive, and he still has a chance to make this room a place of joy.

A single, solitary room, a room that does cannot speak a single word of dialogue. Yet so much is said in the many different ways we behold it.

I am trying my hand at writing a single location that returns multiple times in The Favored Son. The centrifuge has been visited twice already, and each time under very different contexts. The first time is at the very beginning, when things are still relatively calm and carefree. The youth are quibbling about leadership, but there aren’t any serious stakes at play.

The second visitation takes place after the youth have been attacked and retreated to the centrifuge for safety. Suddenly its annoying complexities become securities. It is a place of safety, a place that feels an essential to survival. Again the students are conflicted about questions of leadership, but there is a desperate urgency to it now.

There is a third visit to the centrifuge yet to come, and this one will occur when the students are in a place of utter defeat. The brokenness of the place’s columns should carry a significance then that was never felt before. The question of leadership will finally be put to rest. It will be a scene of old ideas and hopes being laid to rest as well, while a bleaker dawn arises.

Before we get to that, though, we’ve got to actually have the youth be broken. I’ll be getting into that with my next post on Thursday. As you read that entry, consider how I am setting things up to make the next visit to the centrifuge feel fundamentally different than any time before.

The One, True Story

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To Kill a Watchman)

Less than one year before her death, Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman was published to considerable controversy. First and foremost was the concern that Lee, in her old age, might have been manipulated into publishing the novel. And even if this was untrue, the novel itself ruffled many of its readers.

Because it was not actually a new novel, as had been suggested, it was actually a first draft version of Lee’s only other published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And, as it goes with first drafts, this version was a far less polished experience, in dire need of editing.

There was one bright side, though, and it was that this first draft version provided a fascinating insight to just how different that beloved classic might have been. Because Go Set a Watchman is not merely an unrefined version of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a drastically different beast altogether. Central characters, including the all-important Atticus Finch, are changed from one telling to the next. In To Kill a Mockingbird he was shown to be an honest man trying to do his best in a dishonest world. But in the first draft (Go Set a Watchman) we are disillusioned by his portrayal as fundamentally racist. And all these changes add up, creating a story with very different themes than were in its final iteration.

Evidently Harper Lee had more than one idea for how to tell her story and more than one message that she wished to convey. It is easy to assume that a large, literary novel would encompass the entirety of an author’s opinion on a matter, but clearly this is not always the case.

Creator’s Intent)

In fact, famous directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott have proved that their original work did not encompass their entire vision, by revisiting their prior films and altering them. “Director’s Cuts” and “Re-Releases” have become particularly popular of late, though they have their roots far back in cinema, such as when Alfred Hitchcock recreated his film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cecil B. DeMille redid his Ten Commandments.

In many of these cases, Directors have stated that they were simply unable to capture their vision as originally intended, either because of studio interference or because of outdated technology. Sometimes these changes are appreciated by audiences, but other times they are reviled.

Other times Directors have simply been of two minds as to which version of a story they should use. Thus there were two endings filmed, edited, and scored for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. These endings are not simply different takes on the same idea, either, each one dramatically shifts the outcomes for its characters. Both fit well with the rest of the film, though, and there is a case to be made for each. But of course, the film had to only have a single, official version in its theatrical release, and so the creators settled on just one ending, regulating the other to the Special Features section of the DVD.

Pacing Back and Forth)

What if a story didn’t have to have just “one official version” though? What if it could be an idea that the author goes over multiple times, from all sorts of different angles? And what if each iteration was just as valid as all of the others?

The Beginner’s Guide is a collection of short games, each of which represents the main character’s way of processing his feelings in life. Thus they are games that are less about being fun, and more about dwelling on a specific state of mind.

At another point there is a group of games that belong together in a series. It begins with the player in a prison, one that is filled with nice, living room furniture and a window. That’s all there is to it, and then the next experience loads. This one brings the player to the same room, but suddenly the walls and ceiling start receding, creating a massive room, one that is filled to the brim with layers upon layers of this same IKEA-style furniture. Next things are inverted, and the walls of your prison are covered in wallpaper that looks like the sky you had previously been seeing outside. Next the player is in the prison room upside down, with the furniture up on the ceiling. And then, in the last one, the player enters a telephone booth and speaks with their past self, who is still stuck in the prison. They encourage the past self that they’ll get out of there one day, and then the sequence ends.

Thus it is a collection of experiences, all around the same idea, but each with its own beginning and ending. Together they allow the creator to come at the same problem from every possible direction, and to give voice to all of the muddled, interwoven elements of what it feels like to be trapped. There is an honesty to this, as in real life our experiences are often much too complex to be expressed in just one way.

Endless Wells)

Which might seem like a very unique way to tell a story, but actually it’s not. How many times did Arthur Conan Doyle get to revisit the great detective theme? He got to explore his one detective in as many different situations as he could imagine, sometimes creating cases that hewed very closely to one another, but presenting a slightly different possibility in each.

Or Isaac Asimov crafting one tale after another about science fiction and advanced technology and robots? Stories where he can explore one possible version of the future, and then in his next piece explore yet another.

What about Mozart writing symphony after symphony, concert after concert, more than 600 pieces in less than thirty-five years, and still finding new expression in them clear through to the end?

No, it is not unusual at all for a creator to revisit the same well over and over, and still find something new to say each time.

There are reasons why marketing campaigns only ever want there to be one, clear version of a product. But from a purely creative standpoint, there’s no reason why your one piece of work has to be the final and total measure of all you have to say on the matter.

Given the freedom of the blog-structure, I’ve realized that I have a unique opportunity with my latest story The Favored Son. I have had two different versions of the story in my head, and I could potentially publish them both.

I haven’t yet decided if I will go that route or not. I want to finish my current version as it is, and only then decide if there are still important things left unsaid. Perhaps I’ll be able to get enough of the old version to come through in the new iteration that any further work would feel redundant. Perhaps I won’t want to write an entire second version, but rather just publish a critical scene or two from what it would have been. Or perhaps I will, in fact, give it the full treatment as soon as I’m done with the first. The point is there are no restrictions. I have my ideas, and I, like any other creator, have the privilege to develop them at my pleasure. Come back on Thursday to see where I go with that in my next section of The Favored Son.

Don’t Look at Me, This Wasn’t My Idea!

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A Misstep)

Sometimes a story doesn’t go the way that you expected. Ideas that seemed so solid become mush when you try to write them out, or the pacing that felt perfect in an outline of a thousand words feels wrong when expanded to a novel of a hundred-thousand.

On Thursday I posted the third section of my latest story, in which the main character ruminated over his Order’s philosophies, had a tense encounter with the antagonist of the tale, and then moved on to “the Trials” (a series of tests meant to transition the rising generation into the seat of power).

And originally, those trials were a very simple affair. The pupils were going to have contests against one another, by which they would establish the hierarchy for their new Order. I started writing the introductory scene of the Trials in that way, but found myself gradually typing more and more slowly until my fingers came to a halt. All the momentum was gone, and I just couldn’t bring myself to push forward with the story anymore.

So instead I tried to identify why this scene felt so wrong all of a sudden. After a little examination I identified two major issues.

First of all, it felt so very, very generic. Students undergoing a competition against one another has been done many times already. From the graduating class at star fleet academy to the witches and wizards performing in the Triwizard Tournament to the hotshot antics in Top Gun to the savage life-or-death challenges of The Hunger Games.

It could have been a fine trope to include if I had had something unique to offer in it, some way to push the idea forward, but I didn’t. My plan was for the hero student to spar with the villain student, widening a rift between them and pulling the rest of the pupils over to one side or the other. It served my planned story arcs pretty well, but it wasn’t very riveting when it came time to start writing it.

And secondly, the scene where I introduced the Trials just didn’t have the right tone. There is something inherently enjoyable about a tournament, and the “fun” that I was trying put into the opening scene just didn’t match with the scenes that had come before. I was writing the elders as introducing the Trials with a jovial, ringmaster sort of grandeur, and it was in awkward contrast to the deep unease that I had just been describing in Tharol. Every moment of the story thus far had been weighed by a particular gravity. Things had been either serious, contemplative, or laced with suspicion. I needed a scene that expanded upon or brought closure to that tension, not fly in the face of it.

But How to Fix It)

Which explains how I rejected the original concept for the Trials, but how did I end up at the far more shocking scene of a Master rushing at his acolytes with a sword?!

Frankly there wasn’t anything deliberate about it. I just stared blankly at my computer screen, wondering what it was the story really needed in this moment. To help get the ideas flowing I read back over the paragraphs that had been leading up to this moment, and again noted the sense of rising tension in them. I was writing this story like it was expecting something explosive to happen now. As I have already mentioned, at this point in the tale Tharol has been showing a deep unease, the tension in him is mounting, and now would be an excellent time for it burst.

There was a second reason for going this route as well, one that was far more pragmatic. The story needed to get moving, plain and simple. It had had a pretty slow intro, and if it continued along at the same pace it would take forever to get completed. Like Luke Skywalker finding his childhood home suddenly burned to the ground, my story needed a solid kick in the pants.

With those two elements combined (the need to answer the sense of rising tension and the need to thrust the story into its main action) it was clear that this next scene needed to be quite visceral and shocking. And as this was a cryptic Order, where any strange practice might be lurking around the corner, and as I had already suggested that there was always a mysteriously complete transition from one generation to the next, the idea of a war between the students and the teachers came quite naturally.

Where that Leaves Me Now)

But now that I’ve written it and published it I have to live with it. It may have been the right choice for the scene, but I need to make sure it is the right choice for all the rest of the story as well. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure where the story goes from here. I had a loose outline to begin with, and now it has been shredded.

In this situation I have to be okay with letting go of anything that I had planned before. If I try to write the story as originally intended, and also be true to this new arc I have found myself on, then the story is going to be handicapped in both directions.

Now I don’t have to dump everything I had before. Rather I am looking at each individual piece, evaluating if it still has a place in the new arc, and either keeping it, altering it, or tossing it. I’m finding that there are still a few core ideas that I would like to keep, but they will need to be a bit different now to make sense.

Since I won’t be keeping everything, some large holes are going to remain in my outline, and those need to be filled with something new. I’ll use the altered pieces that I retained from the first outline, building off them until the gaps between them have been healed.

Will the new story be better? Well, I hope so. But I honestly can’t say, because I haven’t seen it yet. I think it stands in a more interesting place at this moment, so hopefully that will pay off in the end. My greatest fear is that my next section will come across for exactly what it is: a story reforming itself, establishing entirely new bones at an angle to the old ones. Come back on Thursday to see whether this new beast takes shape in a smooth or disjointed way, and whether it is better for having undergone the change.

This Changes Everything!

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Beings of Change)

I’ve never had the convenience of meeting the same person twice. I’ve known many people under the same name, and usually all somewhat similar to each other, but each comes from a slightly different context that has changed them. We speak of individuals, but inside every body lives a legion.

Our ability to change who we are is one of the greatest traits of humanity. It means that the sinner can repent, the simple can become wise, and the downtrodden can learn to hope. Obviously each of these traits can also flow in the opposite direction, too, but it is worth the risk of good people turning evil to preserve the opportunity for evil people to turn good.

Much of our thought is in fact spent contemplating how different we once were in the past, and how different we hope to be in the future. Both remorse and contentment are based upon perceiving a change of oneself, either for the better or the worse.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are beings that refuse to remain in one place for long, and that ever-shifting nature is sure to bleed through into all our creations. It was always inevitable that authors would endeavor to imbue their characters that same transient nature that was imbued in them.

 

Dramatic Change)

Indeed many stories have chosen to make the changing nature of their character the entire focus of their tale! A Christmas Carol would be a story about absolutely nothing, if it did not feature the total transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Every scene and every experience is targeted towards pulling at that man’s strings, puppeteering him into the person he ought to be.

On the flip-side, tragedies are usually about the loss that comes by being unable to change. King Arthur has a lofty vision for a different sort of government, and for a time it seems he will achieve his aim. But it requires that his subjects to lift themselves higher, to overcome their vices and their follies. When they fail to do so, and instead hold on to their common vices, so too the kingdom must fall back to their debased level.

The example of dramatic change in a story that I wish to focus most closely on, though, is that of Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen goes to great lengths to get the reader to thoroughly despise the story’s leading man right from the outset. Then she has the challenging task of making us love him by the end.

This is wisely accomplished by gradually effecting the change over a great many scenes. At one party we see him recant his unwillingness to dance with Elizabeth, in another we hear tell of his generosity and kindness, shortly thereafter we witness his warmth to his guests, and in a letter we learn of the misunderstanding that led to his previous callous behavior. Then, finally at the end, he is selflessly sacrifices a massive amount of wealth for the woman he has come to love.

Just like Elizabeth Bennett, we have come to see him differently from how we did at first, and because the process has been so gradual and natural, we are able to believe in it. What is unique about Pride and Prejudice, though, is that while Mr Darcy does change somewhat over the course of the story, far more it is only the perspective of him that really evolves.

Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Jane Austen fully developed the character in her mind before beginning any writing, flaws and virtues and all. Then, all she had to do was introduce us to Darcy on a bad day–any character can be made to look negative when cast in the worst light–and then she just reintroduced us to the same man over and over in kinder and kinder lights.

Each new scene he still feels like a consistent character, because he remains the same person, just illuminated in a different way. And by blending all of these views together we finally come to understand him as a whole. By the end we perceive that he is still just as capable of being stuffy and judgmental to those he believes have malicious intent…but now we know that he also has a kinder and gentler side for those he trusts as well.

 

Subtle Change)

But not every story has to feature a complete reversal to change how we feel about a character. There are many tales that feature a great subtlety in how the character we are introduced to is shifted into someone else.

In the novel Mrs Dalloway, the entire arc of her husband, Richard, is that he progresses from feeling disconnected to his wife, to wanting to tell her that he loves her, to deciding not to actually go through it. Thus there is nothing particularly dramatic to his trajectory, but that does not mean his changes are insignificant. On the contrary, even in their quietness they mean everything.

Quite recently, I saw a film which had an excellent use of subtle change, the World War 1 drama 1917. In this movie two young soldiers are given the burden of carrying all-important orders to the front line. Their route is fraught with danger, but the lives of thousands of their comrades depends upon their success.

The film goes to great lengths to establish authenticity in its opening sequences, the dangers that the two face are very grounded. This sharp realism serves to make their situation all the more harrowing. You truly feel that two young boys have been sent out to face a very real menace, a horrible burden for anyone to bear, let alone those so inexperienced.

Things do become more grandiose as the film continues, but the vulnerability of the boys, particularly of the main character, Lance Corporal Schofield, remains. And that sense of youthful vulnerability continues clear to the end, when that main character finally collapses beneath a tree and pulls a tin out of his breast pocket. Therein we see the pictures of his wife and two little girls, which is a small revelation to the viewer. The question has been raised previously whether Schofield had a family, but with how the film has cast him in such a young and vulnerable light that seemed impossible.

Now, though, as with Mr Darcy, the perspective shifts. And though he is the same boy we have seen the whole film long, he is now colored in a new light. Where before he was only a boy, now he is a young father, shadowed by a big and scary world, but still trying his hardest to do his duty.

 

Thursday I shared the second piece of my current story, in which our main character started to be cast in a new light, just as Mr Darcy and Lance Corporal Schofield were. He yet remains the same man as before, but we start to feel differently about him. Clearly something ominous is looming before him.

As with the examples I have shared today, I hope it will be a story where it is the reader that changes more than the character. Also my hope is that when we see him at the end of the story, we will be able to resolve all of the previous perspectives that he will have been shown in. We’ll see whether I’m able to pull this off or not with my third and final entry this Thursday. See you there!

First You Were There, Now You Are Here

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A literary hero usually changes over the course of their story. That probably isn’t a new idea to you. In fact, I have already discussed how the heavy use of adventure in many stories is usually an allegory for how we wish to change in real life. I have also discussed how stories capture our yearning to become our best selves.

In other words, there are things that we cannot do right now that we wish we could. And we hope that one day we might become the person who can do them. For today I’d like to take a closer look at that gap, and how stories establish how what the hero accomplishes at the end, would have been impossible for them to fulfill at the beginning.

Of course, not all stories are this way, there are always exceptions. A comforting pleasure of many serials is to return to the familiarity of characters who are exactly the same as when you last left them. Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of this.

Right from the beginning, Shelock is already at his optimal level of skill and he can already crack the toughest of cases. He has no development necessary. We enjoy spending time in the presence of such a marvel, and each return to his flat is as cozy as it is exciting. And so things continue, from one rollicking adventure into the next, Holmes all the while incapable of being defeated by another.

That is, of course, until he is.

In what was meant to be the conclusive episode, Sherlock finds himself locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Though Holmes has made the occasional misjudgment in the past, he has never lapsed in a moment that presented any actual danger. Now, though, for the first time, both his and Watson’s life are in very real jeopardy.

He is upset at himself for having compromised Watson’s safety, and so when an opportunity arises for Watson to escape, Holmes insists upon it…even though he knows it lessens his chances of emerging from the following struggle alive. Like a chess player that has lost the necessary pieces to win, Holmes is playing only for the stalemate. That is exactly what happens as he and Moriarty meet another by a waterfall and plummet to their mutual doom together.

Frankly an ending like this seems impossible from the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So much time is spent establishing how flawless his mind is, so that anything less than a total triumph would have felt incomprehensible. And without a doubt, if the case of Moriarty had come up at that time, Holmes would have won the contest outright, because he was incapable of being incapable at that time.

But over the course of time, Sherlock became more like the rest of us. He has moments of warmth and consideration, sweet episodes that gradually make him a human being, instead of just a calculating machine. He is like a god, turned mortal through prolonged association with them. It is a transformation that is so subtle that we may not realize it is even occurring, right up until we read the shocking conclusion…and after a moment’s consideration decide that we are okay with it.

There another example of this sort of transformation in the film Minority Report. Here we are introduced to John Anderton, a police chief who lives in a future that has virtually eradicated murder. This is accomplished by use of premonitions that identify the crimes before they are committed, allowing would-be perpetrators to be arrested before they actually commit the act.

Of course things take an unexpected turn when the next premonition comes in, stating that John Anderton himself is going to commit a murder in thirty-six hours. His victim is a complete stranger, and the accusation seems entirely improbable. He simply is not the sort of person who could do such a thing. As such, he resists arrest and sets out on a mission to clear his name.

As we follow his exploits, we learn that he is carrying some deep wounds from his past, ones that have reduced his life to a hollow husk of the joy it once held. In time we learn that the man John is predicted to murder is unexpectedly connected to that past, and is directly responsible for all of his old wounds. Just like that, what had before seemed impossible becomes entirely probable. John, himself, asserts that he is going to kill this man.

But then he doesn’t. When the predestined moment arrives, John exercises his freedom to choose, and decides to not become a killer. And so what has up to this moment been presented as impossible: that the murder-sensing premonitions could be wrong, is now known to be possible.

Too often character development is shoehorned into a story because the writer believes it is supposed to be there. It is a season that is added as an afterthought, rather than as a core element. These stories, though, are ones where the change was absolutely fundamental to the narrative being told. There simply was no story without them.

In my latest short story, I have introduced a man that has happened across a curiosity. He has gained the power to create whatever it is he wishes. While that is an interesting premise, an interesting premise is not a story. I have only included the curious power because it is also a vehicle for his change, which change is the real point of the entire tale. Like Moriarty to Holmes and the premonition to John Anderton, the my character’s discovery of this creative power is a catalyst to help him become the person he must be. Help him become the person that he is not now. Help him do the things that he cannot now. Come back on Thursday as we push closer to this evolution.

The Changing of a Story

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The Kernel)

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.
OR
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.

 

The Theme)

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.

 

The Solution)

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.

A Little Self-Reflection

man standing in front of mirror
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Seeing Ourselves)

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

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

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

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

 

Inescapable Change)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Change Through Reflection)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journeys and Detours

aerial photo of winding road
Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

The Journeyman’s Questions)

When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.

Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.

It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.

Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?

 

Questions Into Stories)

And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.

Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch.

Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.

Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.

This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.

Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.

Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.

 

Less Direct Routes)

The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.

But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.

For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.

Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.

In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.

That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.

In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.

When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.

Update on My Novel: Month 3

black pen near white printer paper
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Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.

So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.

So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.

That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!

The Chase

man riding a bicycle
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I remember the first story I read that didn’t have a proper ending. It was one of the many tales in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this particular one the hero discovered a magic flying carpet, and by it managed to overcome the villain and was promised the hand of the beautiful princess. His every desire having been met he decided to take one last celebratory ride on the carpet the evening before his wedding day. At that point the carpet decided to get a mind of its own, and whisked him far and away, never to be seen again.

I thought that was a very strange and dissatisfying story, but it stuck with me. It seemed like it was supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, several years later, I came across another story that brought me closer to an understanding.

This was a piece called Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (or Strife of Love in a Dream). The basic outline is that a man is deeply in love with the beautiful Polia, though she spurns his every advance. He falls asleep and travels through a strange dreamscape, pursuing his love and assisted by all manner of mythic characters. In the end he finally does manage to win her heart, and is finally about to embrace her forever…when she vanishes into thin air and he wakes up alone.

Again, a very strange tale, but one that also lodges itself in the mind at least somewhat by virtue of that strangeness. So what is this all about? Well, it all came together for me when I heard the legend of how Alexander the Great became inconsolably distraught after he conquered all the known world powers, his one great dream. He had reached his “happily ever after” and that was the greatest curse of all.

Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander… (Way of the World, Act 2: Scene 3)

Now the message of those prior stories became clear. They are speaking to the natural destiny of man to ever have one dream to chase after and then another. If ever you achieve the goal you pursue, then that ideal vanishes and goes somewhere further ahead. It is the mirage you ever follow but never obtain, pressing onward without an ending.

To reiterate, it’s not that one can never obtain a reward, one might indeed gain the new job, the lover, the prestige; however it is the knowledge that even if they do so there will still be another mountain to climb after that. Which is worse, to ever drink and still be left thirsty, or to find a satiation that never allows for the sweetness of desire again? Alexander the Great seemed to feel that the latter was the greater curse.

Because really Alexander’s sorrow is simply due to never becoming any better. The literal definition of damnation is not be thrust into fire, but rather to be halted in all forward progression. If we are not improving, then what is the purpose for our continued existence? To have no path for growth is to frustrate the nature etched deep into our very souls.

These thoughts and others like them  have haunted me ever since I read and pondered over these stories. That is the power of a narrative: to set a trajectory to the infinite, then leave it to the reader to follow the implications as far as his mind dares to explore. Or to put it another way, stories like these plant a germ within a new host, and then let it take root and branch itself out into other original expressions. As a result I have found myself writing new stories around this idea of the chase, of how achieving one objective is only to be followed by pursuing another.

 

Power Suit Racing)

My latest story was my most direct effort at giving that original expression. A story of a man chasing for the ideal, and upon obtaining what he thought it was, he now realizes that it has moved on to somewhere new. As with the tale in One Thousand and One Nights and also Hypnerotomochia Poliphilli, this is a story where there is a man, a woman, and a chase. But in this case the chase is away from the woman, trying to find a new and greater definition to life.

Of course the chase away from the one woman leads to a chase towards another. But as is common in these sorts of stories that woman is only a representation of something more. She is a type for discovering one’s true self, for finding a purpose and cause, she is the reason to become.

Of course Taki doesn’t know that this is the case until the end. He isn’t sure what he is chasing, but he knows that something is stirring inside. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive until he is offered back what he had before. Sometimes it takes looking into the mirror of the past to be able to discern the change that has occurred, and to extrapolate the trajectory of the future. That is the case for him. His hesitation has been due to balancing between holding onto the past and reaching for the future. He sees the past, he is repulsed by it, and so he dives into the future.

In this particular story I changed the end of the script to be different from most others, though. Taki rushes alone into the great unknown, and this time it is the girl who chases after him.

 

Washed Ashore)

Before Power Suit Racing I tried to do a different take on the chase with Washed Ashore. The chase in this tale turned out to be something very grim: one man pursuing another with fatal intent, each seemingly called by fate to ever pursue and be pursued. It was hinted that there was extensive collateral damage in the wake of their battle, yet neither was willing to relent.

With this story I meant to make reference to the chases that occur in a continual round within the same individual. The inherent weaknesses we are born with, the never-ending struggle we make with them, and the years of anxiety produced as a side-result of that conflict. You see this sort of approach in a story like Citizen Kane. The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is one continual struggle between his child-self and his overcompensating-self. The two sides wrestle for control, giving him alternating faces of sincerity and hypocrisy.

A more lighthearted example of this from my own life is that I am divided between introverted and extroverted tendencies. I want to feel comfortable, but also want to step outside of my comfort zone for some “betterment” of myself. And so that means a constant war between two sides of myself, one advocating for a sense safety and the other for healthy interaction. Thus neither side will entirely win out, but the hope is that the conglomerate of all my parts, the overall self, will be better for balancing between the two.

This is perhaps the most common way we experience an eternal chase within ourselves. Not so much an ever-progressing journey as a circling struggle between our different natures. Temptation, weakness, and fear challenged by virtue, resolve, and courage. Perhaps one doesn’t move forward so much as hold their ground, which can be a monumental victory in its own right. These are great races that are won by merely standing firm.

 

Mixing it All Together)

So here we have two very different takes on the chase. We have the one that is linear, moving on from one state to the next, achieving one dream and using it as a launching-off point towards another. Then there is the other that is cyclical, the one that finishes back at the beginning to go another round.

Now that I’ve written a story with each of these approaches I’d like to try and blend the two together. I recently saw the film I Can Only Imagine that did just this. In this film the main character found himself in a cycling struggle between his wounds and his faith. He holds out a belief that he was made for something more, but he also holds a fear that it just isn’t so. The cycle continues, it alternately raises him and breaks him down, and then he finally manages to break that cycle and finally chase on to the new.

On Thursday I’d like to take my own crack at that sort of story. I am going to present a man who carries two burdens: both very heavy, and each in danger of drowning him, one in anger and the other in grief. One of those burdens is one that can never be let go of, the burden of grief. He will always strive with it. The other though, one of hate, he will begin to realize it is possible to move on from, to cease chasing vengeance in order to pursue something better.

I’m excited to write it, and I hope you’re looking forward to read it. Come back on Thursday to see the first half.