How to Change a Heart

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Christmas Hearts)

Character development is a central consideration of every tale. Most stories are not just about what things happened, but about how those events changed a character forever. Consider the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This features a main character, George Bailey, who is miserable in life, tied to a sleepy, little town when he really to see the world and build amazing things. This perpetual dissatisfaction is then amplified by some legal trouble, and in a moment of despair he tries to take his own life.

He is interrupted in that attempt, though, when an angel comes to show him how meaningful his “wasted life” really is. The mission of this angel is to help George regain his fervor for life over the course of an extremely eventful night. Given that this transformation is the core of the story, it occurs gradually, one stirring of the heartstrings after another. Bit by bit George is made to see how positive of an influence he has had on one friend after another, and how much darker the world would be if he’d never been a part of it.

Of course, there is a climatic tipping point, the moment which finally pushes him over the edge. It is when George Bailey sees the love of his life as an old maid, and she recoils from him in horror. This is too terrible a sight for him to hold back his heart any longer, and at long last he pleads for his old life to be restored.

This, of course, is very similar to the journey of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Here an uncaring and unfeeling man is shown the folly of his ways through his own eventful night. First he is reminded of the joy that he once held but lost, and then he is shown the genuine mirth that still lives in the world today, but which he has shut himself out from.

Just as with George Bailey, these changes gradually stir Ebenezer’s heart. But also like George Bailey, it takes a final a climatic moment to actually push him over the edge. And so Scrooge ultimately comes face-to-face with his own future death, totally alone and unmourned. If the story had begun with this sight it wouldn’t have felt convincing for Ebenezer to be transformed just like that. But because this revelation is the summation of everything that came before we accept it when Scrooge finally recants his old way of life and is born anew.

From these two examples it seems very clear that a character’s transformation needs to be a gradual, procedural event. It would, of course, be unacceptable if the complete transformation were to occur all at once.

Right?

A Different Sort of Hero)

Well, what about the transformation of another Christmas mascot: The Grinch? For virtually the entirety of his tale, the Grinch remains a cynical, bitter, mischievous character. He’s annoyed by the noisy celebrations of the kind-hearted Whos, and one year decides to show them how shallow their mirth really is. He disguises himself as Santa Claus and breaks into their homes in the dead of night, stealing all of their Christmas decorations and presents.

After hours of labor he takes the stolen goods back to his home in Mount Crumpit, and waits in anticipation for the Whos to awake. He is sure that once they find all of their Christmas treasures taken they will collapse in tears.

The thing is, though, the Grinch’s philosophy is based upon a false premise. He believes that the Whos’ joyfulness is a sham, nothing more than the enjoyment of “things,” and by taking away those things he will unveil to them just how shallow they really are.

And so it comes as a great shock to the Grinch when the Whos do not cry that Christmas morning. Instead they join hands and sing a happy holiday tune, not one bit fazed by the loss of the things he stole. Their trappings of Christmas were not the cause of their happiness, they were the outward manifestation of it. And so he may have taken away the wrappings, but the gift of joy remains unbreakable in their hearts.

In short: the Grinch was wrong.

Which realization hits him like a ton of bricks, and the impact of this philosophy-shattering incident is best conveyed by having his character do a complete transformation right on the spot. Having him go on a lengthy pilgrimage to get to the bottom of his muddled feelings would not properly communicate the power of the message that he has just received. No, it is far better to change him in a single scene from a scheming cynic to a believing optimist.

And the Grinch is not the only character to have a sudden shift like this. The same thing occurs to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when he stops viewing himself as an irredeemable convict. It also happens to Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov when she is healed of her spite and able to embrace genuine love once more. All at once these become totally different characters, but that fits due to the sudden, paradigm-shifting experiences that they pass through.

Different Requirements)

So, in summary, you often want to show a character’s heart changing gradually, especially when the core of the story is how that transformation occurs. There are exceptions, though, such as when you want to show that a character’s preconceived notions of the world are shattered in a single moment, which is best communicated with an immediate reversal in their trajectory.

And, in fact, there are plenty of stories that utilize both forms of transformation. Jean Valjean’s sudden change in Les Miserables is met with the slower transformation of Javert. Grushenka’s sudden reversal in The Brothers Karamazov is matched by the gradual maturing of her beloved Dmitri.

In my latest story, Covalent, I have been trying to accomplish both forms of transformation as well. On the one hand I have been showing Cace steadily coming into his own in the Ether, growing from a young, impotent boy into a powerful warrior. This gradual change was marked in the last section by some subtle changes occurring to his body: a lengthening of the limbs and his mouth being replaced with a grille.

Rolar, on the other hand, has been absolutely worked over by the events that recently transpired! He was brought to death’s door by a warden beast and could only be saved by replacing large parts of his body with those of the same beast that tried to kill him. As a result, I have subjected him to an immediate and dramatic change, one where his body and intellect were made almost entirely unrecognizable.

Both types of change are helping to communicate the same thing to the reader: that the story is moving into new waters. The strange that became familiar is now eclipsed by a new strangeness. We’ll see just what form that unfamiliarity takes when I continue the story on Wednesday!

Broken Rules

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Curiosity Satisfied)

In the 1997 film Men in Black, undercover officer James Edwards is recruited into the highly secretive MIB organization, which was instituted to protect humanity from all manner of extraterrestrial threats. In order to carry out their assignments the agents of the MIB make use of extremely high-tech gadgets, such as memory-erasing devices and super-powered weapons.

Of course James, like the audience, is curious about what all of these things do, but is repeatedly told to “not touch things!” Perhaps the most prominent of these curiosities is a red button in the car of James’s mentor, Agent K.

“Oh, the red button there, kid! Don’t ever, ever touch the red button!”

Well, of course that button’s going to get pushed at some point! In an interesting piece of reverse psychology, as soon as stories tell us that something must not happen, we know that sooner or later they will. After all, there isn’t any reason for them to show us the wall unless they’re going to crash through it at some point. And so, near the conclusion of the film we get the following line:

“You remember the little, red button? Push the little, red button!”

James does so, and the entire car transforms, with two jet engines springing out of the back, sending it rocketing down a tunnel! Right before it plows into the back of cars stopped in traffic it flips upside down and drives along the roof! And with that, our curiosity has been satisfied.

Stream-Crossing)

Men in Black isn’t the first film to show a barrier in the first act and then break it in the third. A very similar sequence plays out in the 1984 film Ghostbusters. In this movie, a trio of parapsychology professors start a business to eradicate paranormal menaces in New York City. The most genius member of their crew, Egon Spengler, develops some nuclear-powered gear to help them wrangle the inter-dimensional beings that they encounter. The first time they use the equipment, though, they each shoot their proton-powered energy beams at the same target, which is nearly a fatal mistake!

“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you,” Egon tells them. “Don’t cross the streams! It would be bad! Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light!”

Well there you have it, clearly they’re never, ever going to cross the streams. Well, actually no, of course they are! Specifically they do so at the climax of the film, when they face a monstrous parademon who draws his energy from a dimensional gate. Nothing that the Ghostbuster team tries has any effect on the monster or the gate, until finally Egon comes to the inevitable conclusion.

“I’ve a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate. We’ll cross the streams.” As a further encouragement to the other members of the team he adds, “there’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”

And so they cross the streams, and the combined power of their proton packs gives them the energy output they need to destroy the dimensional gate and banishing the parademon back to its original realm! Fortunately the heroes do survive to tell the tale.

In Men in Black, the little, red button was simply a volatile gadget that needed to only be used in the right situation. In Ghostbuster the forbidden action was a bit more serious, as it was something that could have potentially catastrophic consequences. That Egon would suggest that they embrace those potential consequences underlines just how desperate their situation has become at the end.

Broken Rules)

But sometimes broken rules aren’t just used to show how severe the danger has become, sometimes they are used to show character development.

There are several rules established early on in the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. In the movie’s introduction we learn that the Beast was once a young prince, who was transformed into a monstrous brute for failing to show kindness to an enchantress. And he will remain a beast until he is able to show sincere love for another person, and be sincerely loved by that person in return. But the Beast becomes despondent, locking himself away in his castle, concluding that no one could ever love a beast.

Then, one day, an old man wanders into his home, followed by the daughter of that man come to rescue him. The Beast allows that the old man may leave, but only if the daughter remain a prisoner of the castle. She consents.

The Beast tells her that she may never leave the castle, but she may go anywhere within it…except for the West Wing. But, of course, she soon breaks the second of those rules, trespassing into the West Wing where she finds clues of the man the Beast once was, and the heartache he carries inside.

The Beast is infuriated, and she then breaks the other rule by running away. She is beset by wolves, though, and the Beast saves her, though he is severely wounded in the process. She brings him back to the castle and nurses him back to health, during which time they grow to sincerely care for one another.

Then all of the rules that the Beast imposed are broken again, but this time he is the one unmaking them. He encourages her leave, tells her that she is no longer a prisoner of the castle. She does so, but then returns at the end, just in time to break the last and greatest wall, the one put in place by the story’s introduction. She confesses that against all odds, she has grown to love the Beast, and with that the curse is broken.

And So)

We often put up barriers in our stories, establishing rules of what cannot happen. But of course we only do so to then break through them by the end! The reasons for doing so are twofold. The first is to illustrate how drastically things have changed in the world. What was once an unthinkable action with huge consequences is now a better alternative to the dire situation we find at the story’s climax! The second reason is to show character changes. The choice that once would have gone against everything a character stood for comes to be in perfect harmony with where they are now. They have changed, and the reversal of their rule is an excellent way to illustrate it.

Which brings me to my current story, Covalent. In the last chapter Cace briefly considered restoring Rolar to health by fusing into him the last remnants of the beast they defeated. Of course he immediately rejected that idea because it would be entirely unconscionable!

But, of course, why would I show you that decision unless it was going to be reversed? And indeed, as the story goes along things will become so desperate that the unthinkable becomes necessary!

Breaking Through to Story

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Discouraged Efforts)

Last week I talked about “inciting moments,” where the protagonist commits to some cause, even though there is strong opposition to it. I mentioned that in my own story Cace was initially discouraged from exploring the Ether, but then felt he had to because of his promise to help save Rolar and Aylme.

And so, in the very next chapter, I began with Cace determinedly making his way back towards the Ether. This time he was testing his ability to call himself back after entering the trance and things did not go well. Tearing himself from that alternate reality did him serious, physical damage, enough that it could threaten his life if he continued forward. Thus Cace will be freshly discouraged from seeking out the Ether in the next chapter…at least until he gets pushed back into it again!

More Than Human)

There is a similar back-and-forth for the character of Clark Kent in the 2013 film Man of Steel. Clark is a native of Krypton, sent by parents he will never know to Earth. His father, Jor-El, knows that he will be a being of immense power, and hopes that his son will choose to lead the people of Earth into the light.

But when Clark arrives, he falls under the care of a farmer, Jonathan Kent, who is a far more reserved father, fearful of what the world will do to his son if they discover his powers. So Jonathan urges Clark to keep his supernatural abilities hidden, though on occasion Clark defies those instructions, always feeling compelled to intervene when others are in trouble.

Then Clark gets an even more powerful deterrent when Jonathan finds his own life endangered. Clark wants to save him, but they are in a public place and Jonathan commands his son to not intervene, giving up his life rather than his son’s secret. Though Jonathan is gone, Clark is weighed by the magnitude of the man’s sacrifice. He becomes an aimless drifter, occasionally using his powers for good, but always anonymously, disappearing from each place as soon as he shows a glimmer of what he can really do.

Then, fate intervenes. An alien menace threatens mankind if Clark Kent doesn’t turn himself in. There is no way to quietly and peacefully keep his existence a secret anymore. Either he abandons humanity to their destruction, or he steps out in front for all to see. Clark wrestles with the decision, but ultimately chooses the latter, becoming the hero Superman.

The entire first half of the film is taken up with Clark’s struggle. He has powerful reasons to assume his heroic identity and he has powerful reasons not to. Of course he was always going to choose to fully unfurl his powers at some point or another, though, for that is where the story is. If Jonathan Kent had had his way, the story that needed to be told would never be.

Hakuna Matata)

Something similar happens in Disney’s the Lion King after Simba runs away from his home and is taken under the wing of laid-back duo Timon and Pumbaa. Simba is heir to a throne, born to be a powerful king, but right now he is weighed down by shame and absent a father to protect him. To his fears and insecurities comes the soothing philosophy of his new friends: “hakuna matata” which means to just not worry about things anymore.

Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba how to live the carefree life, giving up his duties and identity for indolence. Years pass and Simba believes that his past is gone forever, but there are hints that his heart is discontent with this. He is avoiding his greater story and he knows it. When his childhood friend Nala finds him and tries to stir him back to action he resists, repeating the carefree philosophy he has come to live by. But then he receives a message from his dead father, calling him out for having given up his true identity, and this finally convinces him to act.

Timon and Pumbaa may have meant well, but just like Jonathan Kent they were blocking Simba from his true story. What is the same in both Clark Kent and Simba is that each of them is discontent with their lesser life, but they are also unwilling to stir themselves from it by themselves. Each of them has to be disrupted in some way and have those story-blocking walls broken for them. For Clark this is by the alien invasion and for Simba it is by the appearance of his father’s ghost.

Get the Message Through)

In the story Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean must have his wall broken by several incidents in succession. For after 19 years of hard labor he has been firmly converted to the image of himself as a convict, and it is not an easy thing for him to accept a role in any larger story.

First a kindly priest looks beyond the titles of “convict” and shares food and lodging with the man. Valjean is touched, but not yet fully disrupted. He wakes up, steals the silver, and knocks the priest on the head when discovered!

The next day he is found with the stolen goods, arrested, and brought back to the priest. Instead of condemning him, the priest orders him to be set free and gives him even more silver. He stresses to Jean that he is a new man now, purchased, reclaimed, and set upon a new story.

Jean Valean is deeply moved this time, and in most film and theatrical adaptations finally accepts a reformed life. In the original novel, though, there is one more incident where he starts to go back to his thieving ways, before recoiling in horror and fully committing to his higher calling. In any case, he does finally break his old walls and enters his greater story.

Cace’s Change)

In my story I had Aylme discourage Cace from visiting the Ether, but then when he saw Rolar in danger he recommitted himself to it. Now with my last chapter I have given him a stronger discouragement when he encountered real, physical danger in the Ether. This, of course, means that there must now be an even stronger push to go back. This next push will be the one that gets him through permanently, fully entered into his larger story. Come back on Wednesday to see how I deliver it.

Taking a Look Back: Part One

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Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.

Big Changes)

The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.

Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.

That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.

Little Changes)

There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.

While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!

Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.

But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.

Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.

This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.

One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.

Come and see this idea in play on Thursday, and then again next Monday where I will cover all the other lessons learned from writing The Favored Son: Alternate.

Missing Shots

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The Original Plot)

I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was dramatically altering the final act of The Favored Son. The original version of it just didn’t feel right there weren’t any minor change that would fix it, so I just rewrote the entire thing.

So where did that change take place? Well, it remained the same through Tharol breaking his leg at the end of the second competition, and also through his finding out that several of the students assume he has lost his conscience.

But after this point my current version and the original split apart. In today’s version the next scene is Tharol having a conversation where Reis emboldens him to lean into his “bad guy” role. In the original version he instead discovered that Reis was conversing with the strange statue lady at this point. He saw Reis exiting the parapets with the Order’s pet hawk on his shoulder, he walked out onto the parapet himself, he looked over the grounds, and suddenly he saw the statue lady’s bodyguard sprinting from the city walls with a letter held firmly in hand. A letter presumably carried to him by a bird!

Dun dun dunnnnhh!

Upstaged by Self)

Actually not so dun dun dunnnnhh. This revelation felt very tepid, and this was the main reason for scrapping my work.

This twist just felt incredibly weak compared to the rest of the story. Consider, for example, the earlier scene where the boys are in their second competition and Reis reveals that he swapped a fake crystal with Tharol. That twist was far more clever and far more satisfying. Even though readers were told to expect some trickery, I imagine that most still wouldn’t have seen that particular maneuver coming.

But this scene of Tharol realizing that Reis is in communication with the statue lady? It just sort of…happened. There wasn’t any real suspense leading up to it, there wasn’t anything particular clever to how he figured it out, he literally just stumbled into the revelation by accident.

And the thing is, I knew that this was a weak twist even when I first wrote it, but I didn’t have anything better to replace it with. It was the first thing that popped into my head and I wrote it down as a placeholder. I kept expecting to have some epiphany for how to improve on it…but nothing else came.

And just so you know, I write placeholder stuff like this in my outlines all the time, hoping that I’ll be able to find a better solution before it comes time to deliver. And usually I do. In fact Reis swapping the crystals during the second competition is an example of where this method worked perfectly! In my outline I originally just wrote “some trick should happen at this point,” and trusted myself to figure it out when I got there. That’s exactly what happened and it was incredibly satisfying. But when I tried to use this same method for my bigger reveal?…Nothing.

Eventually I decided I had to just take the weak plot point as it was and move on. I set it in stone, wrote several other chapters on top of it, and very nearly published things that way.

Time to Deliver)

Like I said, usually I’m able to come up with richer plot devices to replace my initial placeholders, but each of us will occasionally miss our shot no matter how proficient we usually are at making them.

Literally, in some cases.

Paul Millsap is a current player in the NBA and a four-time All-Star. He is able to play the game at a very high level. On November 15, 2015, his team, the Atlanta Hawks, were playing against the Utah Jazz. With 3.8 seconds remaining the Hawks were down 97-96, but found themselves with a chance to make a basket and win the game. The ball was bounced in to Paul Millsap, he expertly sidestepped his defender, pulled back, jumped up, and sent off a beautiful shot. There was no other player to obstruct his view, no one in position to swat his shot out of the air, and he was at an excellent angle to make full use of the backboard. It was a very easy basket to make. The sort of basket that Millsap makes all the time.

But he missed, and the Atlanta Hawks lost the game.

And this is not rare occurrence. Every season in every sport there are numerous instances of an athlete stepping up to a shot they’ve made a thousand times before and still missing it. Because at the end of the day none of us are perfect at making our shot. All we can do is increase our percentage chance of hitting our mark but it never becomes a 100% guaranteed thing. When I took a shot with Reis’s betrayal during the boys’ second competition I scored a hit, but when I tried again for his alliance with the statue lady I just came up short.

Endings and New Beginnings)

And this certainly happens in the broader world of storytelling, too. I’m sure we can all recall stories that begin with an excellent premise, but then fail to cash in on that potential with their final act. I believe that many of these misfires are simply due to the author being faced with a hard deadline. In those situations no matter how well you’ve trained yourself for a high percentage chance of success, sooner or later you’re going to slip and deliver something that is beneath your standard.

Fortunately for me, I write my stories a few weeks in advance, which affords me the chance to take a second shot at things.

Two weeks after writing that weak twist I found myself able to view the trouble-area with fresh eyes. I realized a new direction I could take the story in. It would mean scrapping most of what I had been writing ever since, but ultimately I decided it would be worth it. I made the change, published it, and the story you have been reading ever since is the result of that transition. I truly feel that my story is much stronger with this new direction.

Hopefully this little peek behind the curtain has been helpful for you. At the very least I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that:

  1. Everybody misses. We might reduce the frequency of those misses but they will always still happen.
  2. Failure truly isn’t the end of the story. So long as you keep writing you’ll be able to take that shot again. And chances are you’ll make it that time.

On Thursday I’ll be publishing the next chapter of The Favored Son. At the end I’ll also be revealing a little more of how this version varies from the original. Come back then to see what you think of the differences!

Why Do You Write That Way?

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It Once Was Much Worse)

At the end of my last story piece I mentioned that I had run into a little bit of trouble when transitioning from one scene to the next. It felt awkward even as I was writing it, and it sounded wrong when I reviewed it after the fact.

But let me be more precise about how it “felt awkward” as I wrote it. I think the best way to describe it would be that I felt detached from the experience. Where I usually feel like I am actively exploring the world with my characters, here I felt like I was simply typing out random words as a disinterested outsider.

And scenes that are written by a disinterested outsider are usually the least engaging ones to read as well. When an author is not connected to their own creation, then it is very hard for the audience to be.

I wanted to learn from this experience, so I decided to save the awkward segment for review. Here is how the scene originally played out.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then he scrabbled about in the dirt, picking up each coin, then turning and running further down the alley and into a door at its end.

Tharol shook his head and started to make his way back how he had come. He only made it as far as the adjacent alley, though, when he found his way blocked by a bearded and cowled man, peering at Tharol curiously and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Tharol shoved the money bag back into his side pocket, afraid that he had just met a more capable thief!

"Well that was an interesting thing to do," the man said.

"What?"

"Giving that boy half your money after working him over like that."

Tharol shrugged. "I suppose he needs it more than I do."

"A strange sentiment to be sure. Most people feel they always need more of that stuff."

"Well I didn't need those coins," Tharol said darkly. "If you must know, they were a bribe, and I didn't want to be tainted by them."

There are still a few typos and awkward phrases that I decided to leave for to keep this snippet authentic. But for a moment set those aside, and consider only the cadence and structure of the piece. Doesn’t it just feel off?

Getting Specific)

But why does it feel off? It’s all well and fine to know that a scene is bothering us, but if we can’t verbalize why, then we can’t correct it in an intentional way. All we can do is rewrite the piece over and over, hoping by pure dumb luck to find a version that works, with no guarantee that we ever will.

So I took the time and asked myself “why is this wrong?” And I found myself immediately gravitating to the first paragraph of the above section. It is made of of a flurry of rapid and excited statements in quick succession. Scrabbling in dirt, picking up coins, turning and running. Then I noticed this same pattern continued as I transitioned into the next scene. Finding his way blocked, bearded and cowled, shoving the money bag out of view. This sort of quick, dramatic phrasing doesn’t signal that we’re about to have a conversation with this new stranger, it seems to suggest that another fight will break out!

Of course it’s no wonder why I was writing it this way, I had just come out of a fight scene, where this sort of rapid pace was exactly what I needed. But now I needed to transition into something more measured, and doing so required me to pause and intentionally reset my own, personal rhythms.

Once I had done that, I ended up with the following.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then, all at once, he scrabbled about in the dirt, picked up each coin, and ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows. 

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn't gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so...

"You've been there the whole time?" Tharol demanded incredulously. 

I still start off the same way, because I am still wrapping up a fast-paced scene, and I need to not shut it out too abruptly. So there remains the quick phrases about the boy locking eyes, scrabbling in the dirt, picking up coins, and running down an alley. But now I have a turning point with the final phrase of that sentence: “disappearing into its murky shadows.”

The transition here is subtle but important. This last detail is appended to a list of actions. But it is not an action itself, it is a description. Thus in the extent of a single sentence I am seamlessly shifting the reader from thinking about actions to thinking about the little details.

I complete the transition by then describing Tharol standing still, bringing a sense of closure to the previous scene, and a reset before beginning the next. Now when he encounters the thin stranger it was far more natural to write out their exchanges at a slower, more gradual cadence.

In Summary)

So there you go. What I wrote the first time wasn’t working for me, but there was a reason why I was writing it that way. Once I understood the reason, I was able to pause and shift my frame of mind. Then I could write the necessary transition more naturally.

The important lesson here is to be mindful and intentional while writing. It’s easy and fun to just enter a state of flow where the words run out of your fingers as quickly as you think them in your mind. But every now and again it’s important to pause, think, and write what you write intentionally. I’ll try to remember this approach as I continue with the next section of The Favored Son. Come back on Thursday and I’ll let you know how that approach went.

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!

man person legs grass
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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!