Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

Taking a Look Back: Part Two

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Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Relationship Stuff)

The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.

I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.

I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.

Forms of Communication)

Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.

I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.

I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.

And the Others)

Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.

Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.

There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.

Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!

The Shape of Change

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The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

Do You Like Me?

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Strict or Lax)

One decade ago I served a mission for my church, and there were a lot of rules that we missionaries were expected to abide by. Our days were regimented out on a very specific schedule, we were to follow a rigid dress code, we avoided all forms of entertainment media, and we were expected to uphold a very careful image.

Some missionaries took the rules to heart. They sincerely tried their best every day to follow them to the letter. Other missionaries, considered them to be suggestions, and were known for being perpetual rule breakers.

What I found very interesting was that the strict missionaries and the lax ones would butt heads over protocol, but both sides still got along with one another as friends. Even if missionaries disagreed, even the lax ones could respect the sincerely strict, and the strict ones could respect the sincerely lax.

But there was a third class of missionaries, and these ones rubbed everyone the wrong way: the two-faced missionary.

There were a few missionaries that would put on pious airs whenever they were around our mission president, and then cut loose whenever they were in private. No one was able to respect them, because they were too slippery to really know who you were dealing with.

After observing this pattern, I have come to see that it is true everywhere. We can have disagreements with others, yet still respect them so long as they are sincere. But insincerity, or two-facedness? No one is comfortable with that.

 

The Slimy Villain)

Consider Tony Wendice from the classic Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The movie opens with him plotting to murder his wife, Margot Wendice, and blackmailing an accomplice into carrying out the deed for him. His watertight plan runs into trouble when his crony, Charles Swann, bungles the task, and ends up being killed by Margot in self defense.

Not willing to be defeated, Tony wrangles things so that he can instead frame his wife for murder, making it appear that Charles had been blackmailing Margot, and she had killed him in cold blood. This is, of course, a sticky operation, and Tony must deflect every suspicion of his own involvement. He goes to to great lengths to appear as noble to the inspectors as he can.

This has an interesting effect, because we, the audience, know that he is lying through his teeth with every word. And so the more positive he makes himself look to the other characters in the story, the more shameless and depraved he becomes to the audience. When he finally does get his just desserts, it is a very satisfying payoff for the viewer.

 

The Insincere Peddler)

Getting the audience to hate the villain by casting him as insincere makes sense. Interestingly, though, it is also possible to begin with a character that is slippery, and then transform them into the hero instead. Indeed, a common protagonist is that of the insincere peddler. This is a character who goes to great lengths to convince others of something that they, themselves, do not believe in. Their character arc thus begins as slippery snake-oil salesmen, but they can evolve into genuine believers by the end.

Consider, for example, Professor Emelius Browne in the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The man is a sham, who copies spells and incantations from old books, then sells them to any sap who is dumb enough to believe in such nonsense. He is in for a surprise, then, when one of his students, Miss Price, turns up on his doorstep and demonstrates that the spells work perfectly well for her and always have.

Through a series of adventures Browne begins to care for Miss Price, and also for the orphaned children under her care. He feels the pull towards family, but he resists it. Just as how he has dodged his nation’s war, he also runs away from this responsibility, ever remaining the shill.

But then, of course, fate intervenes and Miss Price and the children are captured by Nazi soldiers. Browne desperately wants to come to their rescue, but doing so is going to take a little bit of magic on his part. For the first time, he has to start believing in something.

He manages to pull it off, and it becomes the turning point for his character. By the end of the film he has supported Miss Price in her battle with the invading forces, pledged to be a father to the orphaned children, and joined the army to do his civic duty in the war. We didn’t care for him at the outset of the story, but he really does win us over by the end.

 

The Disbelieving Missionary)

Another fine example of a character who does not practice what he preaches can be found in the film I Can Only Imagine. This is the story of the real-life band Mercy Me, and specifically of its lead-singer Bart Millard.

Bart is desperate for success in the spiritual music scene, and is undoubtedly a very talented musician. But what he gets told over and over again is that he comes across as fake and insincere in his message. He talks about grace and healing, but is himself brimming with resentment and hurt. The last thing he wants to do is reconnect with his abusive father who wounded him, but it makes every song about forgiveness ring hollow.

After he has had his hopes and dreams crushed a few times he finally goes back to the skeletons in his closet, finds closure for past wrongs, and ultimately feels the very grace he’s been trying to sell to others. At long last his songs ring true.

These positive examples begin with the insincere and jaded, and end with the genuine and believing. There is a great cathartic satisfaction in that transformation, and the greater the dislike at the beginning, the greater the enjoyment in learning how to love these characters by the end.

 

Now in my own story we have a particularly two-faced character in Julian. The man continually attests to his own virtue, but shamelessly claws for every advantage that he can. This is interesting, because he is not the pirate in this story.

Bartholomew, on the other hand, is a ruthless cutthroat, but he has the decency to admit as much. He isn’t a worthy character, but we respect him for at least seeing his own flaws clearly. We may not approve of him, but it is easier to like him.

Captain Molley, of course, is the truly virtuous character. He has his principles and he holds to them sincerely. He isn’t a particularly warm character, but again we can respect him because of his being so true to himself.

I want to take these characters, their convictions, and do some interesting things with them in the second half of the story. Julian is not going to have an arc of redemption, this isn’t the right sort of story for that, but I do want to make him pitiable. I want to let my audiences remain disdainful of his slippery nature, but also feel bad for his plight.

For Bartholomew, I want to reveal a more slippery side than we have perceived thus far. Indeed, I want the audience to realize that he is no more sincere than Julian, he’s only better at hiding his second face.

And for Captain Molley, I want to put a few chinks in his armor. It won’t be that he is a two-faced liar, though, just a man under considerable strain, who feels his grip on himself breaking.

I’m excited to see how this all turns out, and hope that you will find it satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see how I start developing these dramas.

You Never Really Knew Me

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Characters Exposed)

Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.

Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.

Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!

That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!

 

Flip the Script)

Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.

This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?

The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.

Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.

 

Suspense)

And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.

Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.

But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under  him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.

 

Terror)

Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.

Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.

His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.

We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.

True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.

 

I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!

Will You Remember Me?

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Taking Names)

I have always found it interesting which character names I am able to remember, and which ones I am not. For example, I struggle to remember the name of the young boy in the film Up. He is one of the two central characters, I can picture him and hear his voice, yet I draw a blank on his name until Google informs me that it is Russell. On the other hand, I can tell you that the old man and his wife are Carl and Ellie. No question about it, I just know it.

Carl is the other main character, of course, but Ellie is hardly featured in the film at all. And yet I remember her, simply because her character hooked into me through one of the film’s deeply emotional scenes. The scene in question takes place late in the film, when Carl looks through an old photo album Ellie had been filling out before her death. He finds a surprise towards the end of the book, she had left a hidden message for him, urging him to go and find a new adventure. It was, I thought, the most charged moment of the entire film. And so I remember her.

 

The Hook)

We often speak of a hook relating to the beginning of the story as a whole, but it also applies to a character as well. Writing a bland character with a colorful name isn’t going to be enough, the character also needs to have something about them which makes a strong impression in your mind.

Darth Vader’s memorability is not due to having a unique name and being the “main villain,” but because of his wonderfully haunting portrayal. Black, glossy, half-machine-half-skeleton, with a strained, laborious breath and deep, rich voice. That appearance is so striking and vivid that one can’t help but internalize his image forever. From the very first moment he appears on screen he is like no one else in that move, and remains so throughout the entirety of the saga.

Sherlock Holmes could have just been “that detective with a weird name,” if not for how distinctive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his introduction. In that scene Holmes effortlessly dissects even the minutest details of his new acquaintance, John Watson. Yes, that treat was then replicated so frequently that it lost its punch, but the first time you experience it, the effect is so novel and delightful that it will stick with you for a lifetime.

Oedipus has obviously come to be the punchline of an uncomfortable joke, the defining element of an awkward complex. But therein lies the evidence of how strong a hook he was written with. The uncomfortable nature of his relationship to mother and father has immortalized him, making his name long outlive his own story. For the masses have generally forgotten the narrative perfection of his tale’s irony, but the idea of Oedipus continues forever.

 

The Story of the Character)

Each of these characters becomes an icon of their story because they are, themselves, an entire story on their own. Even without telling the greater narrative of the one ring, I could regale you with the isolated account of Frodo leaving his beloved Shire to enter the wider world. I do not have to explain the international drama between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities to explain the aching beauty of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice. I don’t have to plot out all the twists and turns of Treasure Island to get you to appreciate the excitement of a young boy, Jim Hawkins, finding himself in possession of a Treasure Map.

Frankly these characters are sometimes even bigger than the story that contains them. Most people don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood ends, and those that do find it rather lackluster. But the idea of a brilliant archer traipsing around in a disguise, directly beneath his enemy’s nose, seeking to “rob from the rich to give to the poor” is so strong an image that his ending doesn’t even matter.

Thus these characters are immortal because their moments are immortal. Indeed, a character written well will not only survive longer than the knowledge of their tale, but even the lifespan of entire nations. Many governments have risen and fallen since the introduction of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Juliet, Snow White, Aladdin, and Hercules, yet they continue to stand through every changing tide.

 

The Personification)

There is one other key element that defines all of these timeless characters. Each one of them is the definition for some idea or archetype. Robin Hood reinvented what it means to be an ordinary man standing against oppression for what is right. Any character that wishes to be as timeless as he, must reinvent that wheel in a way that somehow rings more true to us than his story does.

Tom Sawyer personifies rowdy youth, Captain Ahab relentless vengeance, and Romeo youthful tragedy. We remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of how well they speak to our sense of dual nature. William Tell sticks in the mind for the ingeniously cruel situation of only being able to save your son by shooting an apple off of his head.

Each of these characters takes an idea, and wraps it in a new invention: a story. Then, any time we think of that idea, we think of the character, we think of the story, and they become a shorthand for expressing the condition of human life.

 

With my latest story I have been trying to write an ode to impending doom, to inescapable fate, to incontrovertible destruction. My aim is to write something that captures the essence to such a degree that it redefines the term. I want my characters to live on as the personifications of these ideas. Difficult and arrogant? Absolutely. A story character only ever manages to accomplish this once in a very, very, very long while. But still it is the goal I always try to reach for. Otherwise, my stories and my characters are guaranteed to soon be forgotten.

Meet My Friend, the Story

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What is Shakespeare?)

The best stories permeate with character. As I suggested at the end of my last post, I do not mean “characters,” in the terms of protagonist, antagonist, etc. I actually mean that the story, as a whole, has  a personality that is vibrant and consistent.

When one thinks of the works of Shakespeare one thinks of a sort of story. It isn’t just a story set in a Medieval setting, for there are many medieval stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a story that is old, for there are many old stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a play…well, you get the idea.

Yes, there are many similar qualities about each of Shakespeare’s works: the setting, language, and themes, but there is also this fact that they are told with a consistent sort of flavor. Shakespeare is often referred to as “the bard,” and one really does get the sense that each of these stories are being regaled to them by some troubadour in a low-lit tavern. And so consistent is the character of these stories, that we start to feel that we can picture the person recounting them to us.

He is verbose, in no hurry to rush through anything at all. He is poetic, finding lyrical amusement in the simplest of moments, ever ready to give a moment sharpest color. He is observant, finding equal importance in a scene of epic battle, as in a lone and private soliloquy. He is both cynical and romantic, having seen the weariness of the world he knows full that there are dark and terrible things within it, but he has also watched long enough to see that eventually good does triumph and righteousness prevails.

And now, at last, we have an idea of the character in Shakespearean dramas. They are told in a way that is verbose, poetic, observant to every detail, full of darkness, but still believing in the light. Whether or not these qualities accurately convey the flesh-and-blood man called William Shakespeare, they do convey the character of his stories.

Another story might have all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama on paper, and yet feel nothing like that. Similarly a story might be set in outer space, but have this very same Shakespearean style to it.

Strong Personalities)

Of course, not every story has such a strong personality to it. A story can be uneven in how it presents itself, or it might be consistent in a meek and understated way. It might tell you what happened, but not tell you who it itself is.

Of course these qualities are fitting descriptions for people as well. Some people are inconsistent, hopping from one manic state to another. Some people are quiet and reserved, trying to speak as little as possible. Some people love to talk, and put out a great many words, but never give you any insight as to who they, themselves, are.

And, as has been frequently observed, these usually are not the sort of people that we are drawn to. We might say that it isn’t fair that some people are more likeable than others, but fair or otherwise, we still tend to gravitate to those that show a strong and vibrant personality.

And we tend to gravitate to stories that do the same as well.

In fact, there have been times where I am arguing against naysayers of my favorite films or books, and I find myself saying “yes, yes, you’re absolutely right, the plot plays fast and loose sometimes, the characters have a few wooden lines, and that whole sequence in the middle should have been cut out entirely…. but the story is so sincere, it’s so alive, I can’t help but love it in spite of its flaws.”

And on the other hand I have argued against stories that others have loved because “even though it was very well made, very high caliber, and very impressive from a technical perspective…it just seemed too full of itself and self-indulgent for me to like it.”

Now it took me a while to realize what was going on in these defenses and critiques, but finally I figured it out. My friends and I weren’t talking about books or films, we were talking about people. We were getting so passionate about these stories because each one of them was oozing personality, to the point that they felt like a real person. Thus we stood up for the movies that had the same personalities we appreciated in flesh-and-blood people, and we criticized the ones that matched personalities of people we found off-putting.

These aren’t just stories, then, they are friends and enemies! Is it any wonder, then, why we get so defensive when someone scoffs at our favorite movie of the year? It isn’t just a film, they insulted, it’s our bosom buddy!

Choose Your Companions Wisely)

So what does all this mean for you as a writer? Well, first and foremost, choose your story’s voice, and then let it speak out! One of the greatest frustrations in mass media today is stories that are unwilling to come across too strong. They are marketed for mass appeal, and therefore go to great lengths to not offend anybody, which means they don’t dare stand for anything significant one way or another.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t have a personality, they do, it’s just a wishy-washy, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear, two-faced, spineless, people-pleaser sort of personality. That can help your story from making any enemies, but it will also make your story struggle to find any lasting friends.

When Dashiell Hammet decided to have his stories lean heavily into noir, and gave them the voice of a gruff and weathered detective, he ensured that some people would shake their heads and say “that’s just not my type of thing.” But he also ensured that many others would fall in love with his stories.

 

So what is the character of my own latest story, Raise the Black Sun? Clearly a character that is grim and somber, the whole story speaks in a very melancholic, very measured way. And some people aren’t going to want to spend their time with such a mopey companion, and that’s alright, I don’t blame them. It simply isn’t the most winning of personalities.

But I’ve accepted that limitation, because I, myself, would rather like to sit with it and hear what it has to say. I will continue to do just that with my next post for it on Thursday. After all, sometimes a friend who knows how to be sad is exactly what you need.

A Mind of its Own

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Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.

Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.

Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.

 

At Odds With Your Character)

This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.

So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”

 

A Question of Time)

One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.

On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.

 

A Sharp Focus)

So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.

For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.

Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.

Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.

And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.

 

Meandering)

Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.

As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.

And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.

Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!

(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)

Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.

Three at the most.

Possibly four?

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!

Get to the Point

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A Reason For the Chaos)

One of my favorite films is Gravity, in which a cloud of debris is orbiting the earth, each piece of shrapnel racing through space faster than a bullet. This cloud of destruction happens across a low-orbiting space shuttle, where it kills every astronaut but one, who must now try to find a new vehicle back to earth.

The film is known for its intense moments of action, in which utter chaos explodes across the screen for extended periods of time. Each one of these sequences directly pushes the plot forward, as the aftermath defines what resources are still available for the character to use.

But then, between each moment of intense action, there are quieter moments where we get to know our leading lady a better. After the initial wave of destruction she slowly floats towards the International Space Station, while musing about a daughter that she lost and how this thrust her into a constant state of depression.

The second-third of the film culminates in another quiet moment, one where she finally comes to terms with that tragedy in her life. These moments of quiet introspection do not move forward the one of her getting back to earth, but they do provide us a reason to care that she does.

In a previous blog post I made a comment that the means and the ends of a story are often flipped between the audience and the character. Usually the character puts up with the moments of intense action so that they can get to the “good stuff,” the quiet reprieve that makes it all worth it. But often the audience puts up with the quiet reprieve so that they can get to their “good stuff,” the rousing action!

 

Interesting in Its Own Right)

Of course just because a scene is calmer does not have to mean that it is boring. Obviously the ideal is for the quiet, introspective moments to be just as fascinating in their own right. One film that I felt did an excellent job of this was First Man. This movie is peppered throughout with sudden scenes of tragic destruction, which certainly do their part to add a sense of grim despair to the film.

Yet as sudden and impactful as those moment were, I was more moved by the quiet scenes of Neil Armstrong silently grieving the loss of his young daughter. The simple scenes of a family under duress were not distractions from the greater plot, they were themselves the main event.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how the film draws itself to a close. After a prolonged space sequence, a breathtaking view of the moon, and a euphoric world reaction to the returning heroes…the camera then pulls close to Neil and his wife looking somberly at one another through a pane of glass while he remains in quarantine. Their eyes reflect a longing to be closer, but also a sadness at still not knowing how to talk to each other. So they just join fingertips and look.

Because of the excellent performances I found myself genuinely caring about their family drama, indeed even more than that of the trip to the moon. And I considered more how his space-ventures were hurting his family than how his family was hurting his space-ventures.

 

Pulling Double Duty)

But where Gravity and First Man clearly separate plot-pushing action from character-building reprieve, other stories try to accomplish both at the same time. In my opinion, being able to pull off such multitasking is impressive, but a story that doesn’t feature it is not therefore inherently inferior. In music some expressions are particularly delightful on the ear, yet not every composition needs to feature them.

An example of a story that expertly accomplishes two things at once, though, is Ad Astra. It opens with our main character expressing his total commitment to the mission aboard a space-scraping tower, not allowing anything to get in the way of his focus, including trivial things like family, connection, and self-care. Then an accident occurs, the tower explodes, and his character is sent spinning like a ragdoll through the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

It is an exciting sequence, and it certainly starts the story off with a bang! But it is doing more than just entertaining, it is also a subtle piece of character development. Ad Astra is a man who is falling apart from the inside. He thinks he has things totally in control, but in reality he is at great risk of self-imploding. Though he manages to survive the fall from the tower–barely–he may not survive the fall from himself.

Another example of the film pulling double duty occurs when our hero has a very unexpected battle with a brutal primate. The creature is defined by its great primal rage, something that Ad Astra has long tried to suppress in himself, but is starting to burst out of him everywhere.

The film continues the pattern of subtext and allegory. Each scene of action is also one of introspection, each scene of introspection is energized by inner turmoil.

 

On Thursday I posted the first piece of a story that featured slow scenes that lazily indulge heavily in character and environment. First we met our main character, Howie Stuggs, in a diner, having an inconsequential conversation with his waitress about apple pie. Then we learned about his general opinions of big city folk versus small town folk. Only after that did I start to move the plot forward as Howie began to scope out the location for his next job. But even this moved forward at a very slow and deliberate pace, and was peppered throughout with character quirks that mean nothing to the plot that will follow.

The purpose of these details was not to push the plot forward, though, it was to provide insight to the man Howie Stuggs. Why did I feel that this was a valid use of time for this story? Because at the end of the day, this story really isn’t about the events that transpire, it is about the person that does them. If it was about the events, then I should “trim the fat” and be succinct. But since this is a character piece, I do not consider any of these moments to be a waste.

With my next post I will continue Howie’s little story, and in it the plot will continue to move forward at a snail’s pace. The man behind the tale, however, will be brought into even deeper relief, and hopefully just getting to know him will be a satisfying reward for the reader’s time. There are still a few more character wrinkles yet to show, and then finally the purpose of them will come out in the third and final section.