Main Character Exit, Stage Right

burial cemetery countryside cross
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.

Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.

When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.

In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.

Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.

 

Meaningful Character Death)

Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.

The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.

Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.

An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.

Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.

 

Sacrifice)

If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.

Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.

Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.

This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.

You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.

Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.

In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.

 

That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.

I’ll see you then.

With the Beast

aerial shot of ocean
Photo by Kyle Collins on Pexels.com

Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.

Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.

Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.

Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.

Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.

At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?

But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.

The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.

As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.

John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.

Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.

For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.

At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.

From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.

She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.

Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.

She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.

Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.

John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.

“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.

“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”

“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”

“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.

William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”

As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”

She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.

“I don’t want to, mother.”

Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”

John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.

“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”

“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.

And so they were.

***

This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.

As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”

Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!

After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.

By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.

Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!

And Now We’ll Begin

time motion round clock
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.

The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.

That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.

Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.

What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.

But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?

My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.

Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.

Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.

A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!

 

Core Needs

sunset love lake resort
Photo by jim jackson on Pexels.com

This last Thursday I posted a short, simple story about a father and son who were experiencing a moment of frustration and exhaustion. Each was tired of their shared struggle, and each had their own idea of what it was they needed in order to be happy. For the son, Teddy, he felt he needed to have his nasogastric tube removed and thus be relieved from his constant soreness and discomfort. The father, Christopher, needed Teddy to understand why it was important for the tube to remain, and thus continue enduring all of that soreness and discomfort.

It should be immediately apparent that these two needs were incompatible with each other. For either to be met would mean to deny the other one. As such the two characters found themselves not only struggling with the situation but with one another, trying to convince the other to give way. Neither was successful.

Fortunately for these two characters, neither of their supposed needs were what they truly needed. Beneath the surface there were deeper core needs, and eventually each of the characters stumbled upon them. In reality it was Teddy who needed his father to understand him. Teddy didn’t need the pain to be taken away, he just needed someone to appreciate how great that pain really was. He needed to be validated and heard. Christopher, meanwhile, really needed to process his own guilt and express sorrow for it. Perhaps it is irrational for a father to feel guilty when a child feels ill, and yet emotions don’t have to be rational to be real. Valid or not, Christopher needed to acknowledged that he did indeed feel that way and get those thoughts of inadequacy of his chest.

These core desires, happily, were not so incompatible with one another. Teddy cried and his father empathized with him. This had the dual effect of Teddy feeling heard, while amplifying Christopher’s sense of guilt to the point that he could recognize and voice it. Both characters grew, and more importantly they grew together.

This idea of characters thinking they need one thing, and then discovering that deep down they really needed something else is not a new notion by any means. It’s a concept that finds its roots in actual life experience. Hopefully each one of us has had those experiences of finally understanding the reasons and motivators behind the strange things that we do. Suddenly behavior that seemed to us random or without purpose, now is recognized as being driven by a basic inner need. No wonder, that authors have sought to recreate such poignant moments of epiphany in their stories.

Consider the tale of The Bishop’s Wife. Or maybe the tale of Mary Poppins. If you think about it, these are actually the exact same story, just with two different coats of paint. In each we begin with a father, one who is busy with his important business and civic duties. They are both proud and hard working, but each has a problem as well. In the case of The Bishop’s Wife it is that he doesn’t have enough money to build the church he dreams of, and in Mary Poppins it is that he needs someone to care for his children and keep them out of his hair.

In each story the father petitions for help, one through prayer and another through an advertisement. Each is looking for help in obtaining what they need. An assistant comes to each, one in the form of an angel and the other as a nanny. Both fathers are appalled to find that these assistants are not what they were hoping for at all! Rather than having their problems being solved they are instead compounded, weighing down on both men’s “important” work until at last something breaks and they reach their low point of the story.

It is only at this point where dreams have been lost that the two men are able to recognize what truly matters to them: their families. Suddenly their initial needs don’t seem like real needs anymore, just wants. Each story ends happily as they realize that they have had the power all along to give themselves that which is really important.

It might be tempting to scoff at the fathers in these stories being so misguided with their priorities in life. We would think that we all would know exactly what it was we needed in life, but in reality this is rarely the case. Our intuition will usually lead us correctly, but the challenge is in even knowing which of the many influences that drive us is that same voice of pure intuition. Whenever we have particularly strong wants or fears, those signals can often override the quieter, calmer voice deep within.

Sometimes we may even receive the answers to our deeper needs, feel better because of it, and still not recognize what just happened! There is a film I like which illustrates this very well. It is called The Way, and it tells of a group of four strangers who meet along the Camino de Santiago, a route of Catholic pilgrimage. Each of these four has come to this pilgrimage for a specific need in life. One is to quit smoking, another is to lose weight, another is to get past writer’s block. These are obviously very external, very surface needs. Eventually the crew reach their destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and having fulfilled their pilgrimage conclude that none of them have experienced the miraculous changes that they had hoped for. The smoker still smokes, the overweight man still likes fatty foods. They laugh at their naïvety, and then wander off in their separate ways.

However the attentive viewer will realize that the story is actually not being cynical at all. Though they did not receive the desire that they had voiced, each of them did, in fact, receive something that they needed even more. Things such as obtaining a friendship, a connection to a higher power, and the beginning of understanding one’s place in the world. None of this is ever called out explicitly, and I commend the film for its subtlety on the matter. It feels more authentic because of it.

Watching this film taught me a fascinating lesson about how stories can feature main characters which are motivated by core needs that not even they understand. It is the same for us in real life.

Often we do not realize we are ill until we have symptoms, and then we wish the symptoms away when really we need to be cured of the illness at our core. Then the symptoms will resolve themselves. Surface flaws like a smoking addiction and being overweight are unpleasant and it is natural to wish them away. But they will never leave us until we under the root causes beneath them, and address those instead. It may be that are psyche feels it needs these flaws to relieve guilt or anxiety. It is those deeper sensations of guilt and anxiety, then, that we need to find answers to before we can move forward.

On Thursday I will be presenting a story that is built entirely around a character and his needs. He will have surface needs that he recognizes, core needs that he does not, deep-seated self-doubts that confuse him, and moments of epiphany which he only partially comprehends. Also, in the spirit of the season it will be a story focused around giving and the reviving of the soul. I hope to see you then.

The Weaver’s Loom

art bright colors cotton
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

Over the last four weeks we have been examining the traditional narrative roles found in most stories: the hero, the villain, the mentor, and the love interest. To aid in this I have also created narrative examples of each of these characters, CeeKaelthe Clockmaker, and Ayla; and for each of these my focus was on being true to their role and to create a through-line for them that had its own natural beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately, though, it was never my intention to make a series of isolated vignettes, from the very beginning I had an idea for an overarching storyline that would have a theme and arc all its own. Indeed, it bears mentioning that in addition to the four character archetypes mentioned above the story itself is a fifth character, the most important of them all. It has its own wants and wrinkles, after all, and like any other character it weaves all of its disparate parts into one greater whole.

Experienced authors use their entire array of tools in order to simultaneously develop both character and story. For example, consider how a clever use of juxtaposition can be used to accomplish the threefold tasks of establishing the hero’s character in one scene, the villain’s character in the next scene, and also presenting a thesis on the contrasts between these rivals. From the first scene we understand the hero is good, from the second we understand that the villain is evil, and from the juxtaposition we understand that this difference between the two will be the determining factor in why one will succeed and the other will fail.

With the overarching theme and plot of the story in mind, we can begin to give deeper focus to our individual characters, crafting each of them to be ready for integration into that whole. The experienced author does not want a story comprised entirely of isolated scenes where only a single character’s through-line is progressed at a time. This results in a story that is flat and detached. As much as possible, the drama of every scene ought to involve two or more of the characters each coming with their own personal intentions and each leaving a little closer to their own personal conclusions because of the encounter. Indeed, when all is said and done, a proper story is nothing more than a long, elegant dance.

Of course not all of the separate character threads is necessarily going to receive the same amount of attention, nor necessarily be present from start to finish. Perhaps some characters, such as the hero and villain, may have an arc that stretches from the first to the last pages, but others like a mentor may very well have their denouement as early as in the first act. This is all well and fine, as long as each character’s line is complete. Or in other world, each character should have a complete story that is all their own. It doesn’t have to be a large or complex story, but it should be meaningful to that character and should lead to a personal conclusion that feels appropriate for them. When you don’t give each character their own narrative resolution you are left with “loose ends” and a story that feels unfinished or lazy.

As always, there may be exceptions to this rule. Perhaps you need to leave a few threads open to tie into a sequel, perhaps one of the themes of your story is that not everything in life has a tidy resolution. Just be sure that if you are deviating from this principle that you are doing so intentionally. The trap you absolutely want to avoid is where the author wants to push the main character towards a specific sequence, and facilitates it by introducing an entirely new character whose sole motivation is such as drive them towards providing that needed push. After fulfilling that purpose the character is now useless to the story and therefore falls off to the side with all their momentum going nowhere. And no, just killing them off so you don’t have to explain what happened with them is not a proper fix. If this character needs to push the hero to their needed resolution, they should are in turn also be pushed to their own natural closure as well. A still better solution, of course, is to not be introducing new characters just to fulfill a single function. If possible, look at your other main characters and see if any of them can fulfill that function instead while still staying in stride with their greater arc.

Many authors may find that introducing and sustaining character arcs are far easier tasks than bringing them to their satisfying conclusions. How and where and what should that culmination be? One common and satisfying technique is to conclude many of these threads in a single climatic sequence. Often the final scenes of a story feature the greatest levels of danger, action, or intrigue, but they can also feature the greatest levels of drama and emotion if the hopes and dreams of many hang in the balance. There is a power in a story that is able to simultaneously hand out both salvation and destruction with the same strokes of the pen. Consider the film Warrior, in which the audience has been simultaneously following the stories of two estranged brothers. They are flawed characters, but there are reasons to care for each of them and so it is agonizing as the realization sets in that their individual desires are mutually exclusive to one another. Success for either will only occur at the expense of the other. All of this builds up until the final climax where the two brothers literally fight one another to get their own way, with each impact bringing one closer to success and the other to failure. Everything comes down to this singular moment, and the choices they make here are just as meaningful as the initial ones that set them towards this conflict.

At this point we’ve considered our overall themes and story, we’ve designed each character to support that story and one another, we’ve been careful to ensure each of the characters has their own miniature through-line with a meaningful resolution, and we’ve terminated these various arcs in a satisfying conclusion. But like any complex undertaking, the work is not yet complete. The house might be built, but it is covered in dust and soot and it would be ingenuine of me to not mention all the clean-up work that follows a rough first draft. Just “mentioning” it may not seem sufficient and I don’t mean by glossing over this act of glossing over to suggest that it is either a quick or a trivial undertaking. Rather it is out of respect of just how large and complex this phase of story-crafting is that I think I had better wait for later blog posts to give it the in-depth treatment it really deserves.

There is one particular element of this clean-up process that I do believe bears special consideration here, though, one that is directly related to this act of weaving together the various threads of character and plot. This is the consideration of tone and cadence across the story as a whole. Perhaps each character had a satisfying rhythm to their arc when crafted in isolation, but now their individual scenes are separated with other plot moments in between, ones which will pull the mood of the story to any number of different places. Obviously the first consideration ought to involve ordering scenes so that the emotional tone with which one finishes naturally matches up to the tone with which the next begins. Where chronology or other considerations make this impossible, then the dissonance can be addressed by writing a short connecting sequence that changes the tone from the prior to the latter. For example a sad scene could pull away to an examination of the environment, which could gracefully shift from night to sunrise, which now allows us to descend on the more cheerful drama that is next to unfold. The art of the transition is yet another of the many tools that every author ought to take time to keep well-maintained and sharp.

Over the next few days I’ll be going through this entire process in miniature as I take each of the individual parts of the Revelate series and graft them into a single, complete tale. On Thursday I’ll present the outcome of that task, and that will conclude our time in that world. I hope to see you there for the culmination of it all.

Phillip the Mouse: Being too Small and The Terrifying Frog

animal blur close up cute
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Phillip the Mouse and Being too Small

One day Phillip found himself with his dad at the home of the Dotty family. The Dottys were his neighbors three-mouseholes-down, and he and his dad were helping Mr. Dotty to dig a new guest chamber. While they were working, Mr. Dotty’s son Felix came in.

“Dad!” he said. “The fair just opened in town this morning! Can I go?”

Mr. Dotty thought, and then said that would be alright. Phillip thought the fair sounded very exciting, so he tugged his dad’s paw and asked if he could go, too.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Felix said quickly. “The fair is for us big mice, you are too small to go.”

“Felix…” Mr. Dotty said sternly. “Phillip has been being a big help to us, and the fair is for everyone. If Phillip’s father says he can go then you’ll take him with you.”

Phillip’s dad said it was fine for him to go, which Felix wasn’t too pleased with. Even so, he had to mind his father, and the two of them set off down the country road to town. They went along silently, following the road through a grove of trees until they came to a narrow point between two cliff faces. Here a recent rockslide had fallen across the way, and was blocking their path forward.

Felix looked left, then right, and then up at the obstacle for a moment. Next he crouched down and waggled his tail, jumped up high, and grabbed the top edge of the nearest rock. With a little scrambling he pulled himself onto the top, and then leapt for the next boulder. Phillip tried to copy him, looking left and right and up, crouching down, waggling his tail, and leaping! But he fell far short of the rock’s edge and fell back on the ground. After trying a few more times it was clear he just couldn’t make the jump.

“Wait, help!” He called out. “I can’t reach.”

Felix looked down and shook his head. “I told you that you were too small. If you’re not big enough to reach that first rock, then there’s no way you’ll make it over this whole pile. You’d better head back home.” Then he turned and continued on his way.

At that Phillip sat down and cried. Maybe Felix was right, maybe he really was too small. And now would miss out on all the fun. But as he sat there, drying his eyes, Phillip happened to notice a hollow log that had fallen underneath the rockslide, laying on the ground with its end pointed towards him. He scurried over and saw that it ran all the way to the other side of the rockslide and, even better, was just the right size for him. Phillip bolted through, and then laughed the rest of the way to the fair.

Some time later Felix managed to get over the rockslide, down the other side, and finally arrived at the fair. He was amazed to see that Phillip had not only made it there himself, but also beaten him to it!

“Maybe you are bigger than me,” Phillip admitted. “But I’m just the right size for me and I can get where I need to go!”

Felix nodded sheepishly and apologized, then the two of them went and had a lot of fun.

 

Phillip the Mouse and the Terrifying Frog

Phillip the Mouse was out exploring in the marshes one day. Whenever he came to a little stream he would hop across the lily pads to the other side, and if there weren’t any lily pads he would climb the tall grasses until they bent over and made bridges for him. He was imagining that he was a great explorer, traveling into a deep and ancient forest. Who knew what sorts of monsters might be lurking just around the corner?

To Phillip it had just been a pretend game, but then, as he lifted a leafy branch, he found himself actually face-to-face with one of those monsters! It was a low, hulking, green creature with giant, bulging eyes. Even as Phillip was staring at the creature it started swelling up bigger and bigger, getting even larger than Phillip! Phillip could feel his heart racing and his whiskers twitching. He felt very afraid, so he dropped to all fours, puffed up his fur, stood his tail out straight, and opened his mouth wide to show his teeth. “Hhhhkkk!” he hissed threateningly.

If there’s one thing you don’t expect a monster to do, it’s to cry, but that was exactly what this one started to do. The creature’s whole body deflated, and Phillip could see now that it was shaking. “Stop it!” the creature said with a small voice. “Why are you being so mean?!”

Phillip felt a little ashamed and his fur smoothed down a bit. “What? I’m not being mean. You’re the one who’s a scary monster!”

“I’m not a monster!” the supposedly-non-monster sobbed. “I’m just a little frog. And if you’re not being mean, then why am I the one who is crying?”

Phillip realized the little frog had a point and he stood back up on his back paws and stopped baring his teeth. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to be mean, I was just trying to protect myself when I saw you puffing up there.”

“Oh… did that frighten you? That’s just what I do when I’m startled. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw you.”

Phillip paused, a thought bubbling up inside of him. “Maybe we were both being mean and scary,” he finally admitted, “but we only did that because we felt frightened of each other.”

The frog thought this over. “Yes…I think that happens with people sometimes. But…I’m not really afraid of you anymore.”

“Me either. I’m Phillip, by the way, and I’m a mouse. What’s your name?”

“Chester. What were you doing here anyway?”

“I was exploring,” Phillip said proudly, “and looking for exciting secrets in the marshes.”

“Like me?” Chester laughed. “Well, you know, I live here and I know where some more great secrets are. Would you like me to show you?”

Phillip thought that sounded wonderful. Exploring the marsh together was going to be a lot less frightening if he had a friend along with him, and unless he was very much mistaken he had just made one.

***

On Monday my post was about imbuing your stories with messages or principles. These two stories for my son were ones I developed as a way to deliver tailored lessons to him, concepts that I hope will help him deal with his day-to-day situations.

The first story was based off of his being at that awkward stage where he wants to be big and do everything on his own, but then gets frustrated when, sometimes, he isn’t physically capable of actually accomplishing those things. I wanted in this story to tell him that it’s okay to still be growing. He’s just the size he should be, and maybe sometimes he needs to find his own way to do things.

The second story has to do with his anxiety when meeting new people, particularly ones that are loud and flamboyant. He’ll shrink into his mother or me and informs us that that other person is too scary. I thought I might start suggesting to him that sometimes people are loud or intimidating because they, themselves, are trying to hide their own fears or insecurities. Those that are the most scary are often those that are the most scared. This isn’t meant to discourage him from seeking safety when he is uncomfortable, but to help him broaden his perspective.

Clearly there are some concepts here that aren’t just for toddlers, either. There are times I would do well to better internalize the very lessons I am sharing with my son. I would like to explore that more in my post on Monday, how children’s stories can be written for all ages and, indeed, should be. See you then.

Imposed Will: Part Three

gray concrete column inside vintage building
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Part One

Part Two

William paused, staring down the vacant hallway, still numb from the shock of what he’d just done. The lady’s face in the wall behind him faded back into the stone, only to reform a few feet down the passage ahead of him.

“Let’s go,” she said, darting her eyes to the right to indicate the exit’s direction.

Swallowing purposefully he stepped out into the hall, closing the heavy door behind him, then shuffled after her, creeping along as quietly as possible. The passage was low and dark, only illuminated by the occasional torch, all of which flickered from a draft rolling down from the upper levels of the prison. As he followed the curving path his body-less companion kept pace alongside him, gliding through the cobblestones as effortlessly as a hand through water. Each feature of the rough stone would pass through her face as she moved past it, creating the sensation of textured shadows constantly flitting across her brow. The curve they were following prevented William from seeing very far ahead, and so it was that he abruptly happened upon a staircase, unable to duck back out of view before a guard descending down the steps had spotted him.

“Get him!” the lady’s face hissed, but William froze, his hands instinctively raising in surrender as the equally startled guard raised his rifle level with William’s chest. The lady moaned in frustration, her face sinking back out of view, only to reappear on the stretch of wall behind the guard. Her face was now joined by two arms stretching outwards, feeling for the oblivious guard. Before William could cry out in surprise her hands had wrapped around the man, pulling him backwards to the wall with a dull crack, then dropping his limp body to tumble down the steps to William’s feet. William sprang down and checked for the man’s pulse. He was unconscious.

Her face popped back down next to him, a disappointed scowl carved across her brow. “You were surrendering,” she accused.

“I—I know,” he said, his face still flushed and his heart pounding. “Look, all this reality-bending stuff is still new to me. I’m not going to be much good at it in the spur of the moment.”

“Obviously,” she scoffed. “I wouldn’t expect otherwise. But I do expect you to at least try!”

“Fine, fine,” he said, rising from his crouch and starting up the steps. “Do you have any advice for when facing another guard? I mean, it just seems like changing realities on an actual person is a whole lot more imposing than on a dumb door.”

“Yes, sentient beings have more capacity to resist the change,” she admitted. “If they have the presence of mind to fight back, that is. But in those moments it is just a matter of the stronger will winning out.”

“And how do you—” he paused in the middle of the question as his feet skid to a halt. He was nearing the top of the stairs, and at the summit he could now see an open doorway, light and voices spilling out into the hallway that ran past it. Edging over to the other side of the stairs he was able to glimpse across a wider angle of the room, spotting a group of six men sitting around a table laden with their tankards, all engaged in a relaxed reverie. Behind them was another door, likely belonging to some sort of closet, judging by its small size. The men appeared to be well engaged in their mirth, but they were in full view of the doorway and couldn’t fail to notice anyone who might walk by.

William quickly ducked back to the hidden side of the wall. “There’s six of them,” he whispered to the lady. “No way to sneak past.”

She nodded. “So what are you going to do?”

“I—I was hoping you might have an idea,” he said sheepishly.

She looked at him darkly, appearing very disinterested in solving the problem for him. Suddenly, her expression brightened, and she launched into a barrage of sarcastic offers. “Why don’t you just dissolve their eyeballs? Or shrink the room down to fit into your pocket? Or extend your legs out so you can step over the entire doorway? Or—”

“Alright, alright” he interrupted, taking the hint that he needed to find a solution on his own. He wouldn’t dare attempt any of what she had suggested, though he was half tempted to ask if all that was really possible.

What could he do? The only thing that he felt comfortable with was opening locked doors after doing the one in his cell. He could find a door and make it open into the closet he had seen behind the men. But how would that help? Maybe there was some other useful way to use that room though? He asked the lady if she knew what was behind the door.

“Could be anything. Literally. You haven’t seen it, and so it remains open to interpretation. Course you could always change a room even after seeing it, but it’s always easier to influence the world when you aren’t fighting your senses.”

He nodded, his mind forming the beginnings of a plan. “It might be a closet stacked with barrels, then,” he mused aloud, “Barrels filled with ales like what they’re drinking now.”

“A perfectly reasonable determination,” she encouraged.

“And those barrels might not be stacked securely, prone to falling over.”

“More than likely, I would say, given they’re such a careless, drunken lot. I can almost hear them crashing to the ground now…can you?”

Could he? Slowly inching up the last steps towards the door he stretched his imagination out towards the closet, projecting the sound of creaking wood and sloshing ale muffled behind the men’s voices. He felt a strange, crescendoing premonition in him, the hairs on his arm raising in knowing anticipation…

WHAM! The thunderous crash from the closet made him leap in surprise, but then, catching his wits, he dashed silently past the doorway. As he passed its open frame he had a glimpse of all the men rushing towards the closet, amber liquid pooling out on the ground at its base. He continued silently sprinting away in case any of them were to emerge, but no one did. There were another three empty rooms connecting off from the hallway, and he slowly approached, peered into, and then passed each one. Just ahead of him he could see the back exit to the complex and he sped up his pace, anxious to emerge.

He strode down a short flight of steps to the great, wooden door and clapped his hand on the iron ring as, in unison, a large, rough hand clapped down on his shoulder. He was forcefully spun around and there met a large, burly face. He realized that in his hurry he had failed to notice the small guard’s booth off to the side of the door. The man was quite larger than he was, and the grip on William’s shoulder spoke of considerably greater strength than he himself possessed.

Not wanting to be in range of the guard’s fists William instinctively flung himself forward to the man’s chest, grappling him in a tight embrace. The man stumbled back awkwardly, but found his footing and then pivoted, swinging William into the hard wall with a bone-shaking smack. William maintained his grip, but felt dazed and would not last another blow like that. His clasped hands were getting clammy and his knees were wobbling with the desire to run. All rational thought processes seemed to have been muted by his panic. As the man twisted his waist, pulling back for another swing into the stone, the hard, wooden handle of his pistol knocked against William’s forearm. Without thinking, William relaxed his grip on the man and kicked out against the offending wall, propelling himself backward. As he did so he flung out his hand to catch the man’s pistol, which of its own accord was moving as if by invisible strings, sliding out of its holster, up the fellow’s body, and through the air towards William’s grasp. William’s finger was already in the motion of pulling the trigger as the handle slid smoothly into his palm. A single shot rang out, catching the guard full in the chest and crumpling him down to the ground.

The expression of triumph remained on William’s face for less than a second before the horror of what he’d just done sunk in. He glanced in utter bewilderment down at the gun in his hand, its muzzle still guiltily puffing smoke, then over to the mound of clothes and flesh in front him. He turned to the lady’s face in the wall, her expression was one of surprise but not of disapproval.

“Help him!” he whimpered to her, the fear in his voice surpassing that which he had felt when in the thick of battle.

She squinted at him, then said decisively “No. We’re wasting time as it is.”

“Wasting time?! His life is at stake!”

“If that’s so important to you, then take care of it, but be quick about it. There is nothing I can do for him which you cannot do yourself.”

There was a finality in her tone that made it clear she had nothing more to say on the matter. Pushing down the fresh rage that was bubbling up he closed his eyes and tried to calm his beating heart, willing his mind to work out a solution. What could he do? Make it so that he had missed? But he knew he hadn’t and he still struggled to know how he could convince himself otherwise. Where had he hit him? The chest? That wasn’t good. However he hadn’t actually seen the wound, nor indeed any blood pooling on the ground yet. Keeping his eyes closed he pressed his hand to the floor, telling himself that the ground was still dry around the body. Indeed it still was. Well then, it must have just been a surface blow. Perhaps it got caught on something? Yes, that was it. But what? It didn’t matter, anything would do.

Opening his eyes he reached around the man, and rolled him onto his back. William reached through the folds of the uniform on the man’s chest feeling for a shallow strike mark that he insisted must be there. It was as if his fingers knew instinctively where to go, they smoothed out a bend in the cloth to reveal one of the brass buttons, warped and welded by a ball of lead, the fabric around it scorched off. He pinched the ball, still hot from the firing, and pulled it and the button away, revealing a slight depression and welt in the man’s chest, but certainly nothing fatal. Of a sudden, the man’s chest began heaving with new breath and his eyes snapped open, locking on William’s with a wild and astounded expression. He remained silent, frozen in mute terror, as if he had just been reclaimed from the dead.

William slid the pistol back into the man’s holster. It was already discharged, after all, and somehow he knew this man would not emerge from his shocked paralysis until long after he was gone. Standing up he felt a warm rush, a calmness that belied the tense moments that had immediately preceded. He gripped the iron ring of the door, pulled it open, and stepped out to finally and properly meet his liberator.

***

On Monday I wrote about the reasons why readers love to go on an adventure in stories and how it prompts them to seek similar adventure in their own lives. I’ve tried my best to reflect that here with the Imposed Will title. William is a decent person, one that means no harm on the world, but is undoubtedly living beneath his potential, his greatest flaw is lacking trust in his own abilities. Slowly but surely he is overcoming that failing, though, and he is on the cusp of a great adventure that will further define who he is. I imagine the average reader will be able to readily identify shades of themselves in William, and the hope would be that they are prompted to consider what untapped potential they could unleash as well.

This completes the Imposed Will series, as well as the larger Adventure Collection I’ve been adding to over the last five weeks. Please come back Monday when I will start on a new collection, one that takes a much more bite-sized approach to adventure!