Intersecting Worlds

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Story Within a Story)

The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.

In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.

This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.

There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?

The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.

This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.

In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.

Intersecting Worlds)

There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.

This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.

It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.

This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.

I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.

Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.

Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!

My Fifty: #10 – #1

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am going over my most favorite entries!

The Top 10)

Believe it or not, having these last two sections be exactly ten entries each was not something I did on purpose. It just so happens that I think these remaining stories really are a tier above the last. A lot of the reason why I feel so is because of personal preference, these ones just speak more directly to me. In any case, these truly are the stories that I am the most proud of having written.

10. The Storm. An old fisherman goes into a storm to bring back a fellow-sailor, which sailor was responsible for a past tragedy.
Once again I went with with beaches, the sea, and gray skies! The symbolism of this piece is extremely blunt: two boats tethered together and weathering a storm as soul-breaking confessions are made. Sometimes it’s better to not be subtle, to just wear your themes on your sleeve and see how far you can push it. I enjoyed being able to really lean into the depth of emotions that I wanted to convey.

9. Free Cleaning Service. A detective is trying to track down a serial killer, and in the process invites the murderer to his own home.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by a nightmare once. So then I posted it on my blog for everyone else to share. You’re welcome. Grim as this piece is, I also can’t help but be impressed at how well it captures the terror I felt that night. I had to translate unspoken sensations into written words, which would elicit the unspoken sensations in the reader. Not an easy thing to do, but I think I found my way through it.

8. Boat of Three. A captain, a sailor, and a pirate are together in a lifeboat, the most precarious of companions in the struggle to survive.
This was yet another example of starting a story in fertile ground, and then just sitting back and letting all sorts of interesting plot developments spring out of it. Although I couldn’t let those ideas grow entirely unhindered, because I already had a strong sense of where I wanted the story to end. Thus I had to steer the herd in the right, general direction, and in the end I felt it was a success. Not only this, I felt it was one my best examples of writing about current issues through allegory.

7. The Soldier’s Last Sleep. A soldier on the frontlines must defend against one wave of the enemy after another in what might be his final stand.
This story emerged from a very simple image: a soldier laying down in his bunk after days of fighting, too exhausted to even remove his boots. But where many stories grow forwards from an idea, this one went backwards. I started to ask “well how did he get this way?” which led me to imagine a long sequence of excruciating labors. This piece was actually very satisfying to write, because I permitted myself to flesh out every scene with layer upon layer of prose, resulting in some of my most favorite lines in all my work.

6. The Anther-Child. A race of creatures that live on the anthers of a flower are menaced by a persistent predator.
I wanted to write a story that was a true fantasy, where the main characters were not human, nor human-like. I wanted it to be very surreal and strange, featuring a species I have never seen in any other story. And when all was said and done, I would say I succeeded. I simply do not know anything else that feels like the world I setup for this piece, and it’s somewhere I would very much like to spend more time.

5. Deep Forest. A strange, insect-like creature awakes after eons of sleep, discovering an unfamiliar world that has yet to be awoken.
When I said The Anther-Child was unlike any other story, I meant any other story than this one! I wrote this one first, and once again it represents a more pure fantasy, with a main character that defies any semblance of being human-like. It eats dirt and has compound eyes and regurgitates a larva that it places in an inner pod to incubate! I loved the freedom that this approach gave me, and still want to spend more time in this space.

4. The Toymaker. Two toys are brought to life, and set on a path to the Great City. But soon they are waylaid, and must strive to ever find the road again.
This piece starts as whimsical and carefree as Winnie-the-Pooh or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but quickly meanders into a grim and harsh world. It strikes an intriguing balance of examining coarse reality, but all through the eyes of un-surrendered innocence. The ending is, I believe, the greatest success I’ve had in sentimentality, and conveys a message that I believe we all could benefit from.

3. Raise the Black Sun. A caravan must bring their wares to a mysterious citadel, weighed down by a sense that they are approaching the end of the world.
Yet another story of mine with a slow burn, this one being the longest and slowest of them all. That gradual escalation was the only option for this one, as its purpose was to capture a deep sense of burden and melancholy. Thus there is a heavy weight that permeates every scene, dragging down the tempo, but slowly rising until it bursts out everywhere in the most explosive conclusion I’ve ever written!

2. Revelate. A group of automatons go about their daily lives, falling in love and concocting schemes against one another.
This is my most intricate piece to date. Its plot occurs in a complete cycle, where the ending transitions seamlessly back into the beginning. It also features characters that evolve into one another through the course of each cycle, done in a way that I have never seen in any other tale. It is therefore one of my boldest pieces from a technical standpoint, and on top of that also presents a sincere and heartfelt drama.

1. Glimmer. A warrior descends to a planet shrouded in darkness. She has come to restore light and life to it at any cost.
This story takes the fight between darkness and light in a very literal sense. The world it presents is stark and barren, with little to distract from the drama at its core. It is another epic in miniature, where the great battle is in the heart of its main protagonist, more than the outer world that she is trying to save. And indeed, her intense earnestness is a very large part of why I like this story so much.

50 Down…)

As I said, I’m very proud of these stories, and I could have certainly made a case for any of the top several being my favorite of all time.

Now I know that none of these works aren’t perfect. I’m aware of pacing issues, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing in even my favorite stories. And I don’t even mean in the sense of “no story is perfect,” I mean I could do better than this if I gave myself more time. This is why I don’t try to pan any of this off as professional work, and I wouldn’t publish any piece as a commercial product without first putting it through extensive rewrites.

But that is simply the nature and intent of this blog. I have an idea, I explore it for a while, and then I move on. The purpose of these exercises is not to make commercial products, it is to sift through the seeds and find which ones would be worthy of a more thorough production later on.

Some of these I’ve discarded and don’t expect I will ever return to, some of them show a bit of promise if I can just figure out a better approach, and some of them are the beginning of something special.

And I do intend to fully develop some of these ideas down the road. In fact, I’ve already started to do so with one.

…Many More to Go)

But for as many seedlings as I’ve started, I’m nowhere near ready to stop planting more. The pool of ideas is simply too large to stop processing them. And if I do say so myself, I’ve still got some of my best ideas yet to come. In fact I’ve already queued up a few of them for the next story series I publish.

In closing, thank you for being here with me through this long self-examination. These tales have so very much of me laced through them. I wrote them first and foremost for my own benefit, and am forever awed that there are others of you who seem to enjoy them as well.

I do believe that stories are one of the best ways we have to connect to each other. As we each find a part of ourselves in the same themes of the same story we find our common ground.

An Invitation

person writing on white paper
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I want to start off by acknowledging that there’s almost always “an angle” in the blogosphere. So many comments and likes are left only in the hope of receiving comments and likes back again in a sort of ego-exchange. And I’ll be perfectly honest, in my early days of blog-writing I did exactly the same thing.

But I do believe it is possible to do something nice just to be nice, and I do believe that a real sense of community can be built even in the virtual world. And so I’d like to extend an open-ended offer to all of my readers, inviting them to let me know if there’s anything I can help them out with.

This is not about wanting a cross-promotion, a guest appearance, or a testimonial. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not like I have nearly enough influence to be useful in building your brand anyway, and I stopped caring about building my own brand a while ago.

 

So Wait, What Exactly Are You Offering Then?

There are other blogs where I’ve wished I could reach out and have a personal chat with the author, but have felt that that would be too forward. There are people who I’ve respected and would like the opinion of, but don’t want to burden them for their insights. There are people that I would like to work with, just to make something together for the fun of it, but then worried they’d think I was just trying to get something from them for free.

In short, with today’s culture most of us feel like we need to have an invitation to connect. So this is my blanket invitation. This is me saying that if you want to chat, I’d love to chat. If you want me to look at your stuff, I’ll gladly tell you what I think. If you want to try making something together, I’d love to see what we can do and you keep the intellectual property!

My only stipulation is that we approach this in the spirit of genuine friendship. I sincerely do want to help…but even more than that I just want to get to know you better.

 

My Interests

It’s an open-ended offer, and if you decide to reach out you don’t have to keep yourself constrained within the following categories and examples. But just to get your ideas flowing, here are a few of the things that I have at least some experience in.

 

STORIES
As you might have gathered over the last two years, I love writing, and I will always write. Never mind if I’m any good at it or not, I’ll always be trying! But we writer’s are notoriously reclusive. None of our work is good enough to share, because if we show it to someone else they might think its terrible, and then they’ll hate us forever by extension.
Well, let me tell you, I’ve read the work of people that I love dearly and it was astoundingly bad. Yet, in spite of all temptation to forever loathe them for coming up with such a monstrosity, I somehow was still able to respect them as a person. I know, crazy! Not even sure how I came by this ability, but so long as I have it feel free to make use of it for some honest, but kind, feedback!
Or tell me about the idea you’ve always wanted to get rolling, but would like a fellow creator along the journey. Or ask me about my own work, see if I have a starting point laying around that you could build off of. Or just start a conversation about our favorite stories by others.

 

SPIRITUALITY
I know, I know, never talk about religion or politics if you don’t want to ruin a friendship, but the fact is that spirituality covers a very large sector of my life. I’d love to have theological discussions (though never an argument!) with anyone who cares to.
Most of us carefully couch everything we say about religion in order to not say anything offensive, but we all need to find a place where we feel safe enough to talk about very real frustrations and confusions. We need a friend who understands that partially formed ideas are only partially formed ideas. The relationships I value most in life are the ones where I am able to say “hey, this might sound crazy, but what if God is actually like this…?” If that sounds interesting to you, I’d love to chat.

 

TECHNOLOGY
By profession I am a software developer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I can fix your computer or build your website…but, depending on your exact situation, maybe I can! If you want an opinion for what your next laptop or cell phone should be, let me know what you’re use-case is and I’ll try to help you find something that you can really love.
Or maybe you’ve wanted to learn a bit more about technology? Perhaps you want to find out what we mean by “its all just 1s and 0s,” or you’d like to setup your first coding environment, or you’re about to take the plunge and build your first PC…let me help, I’d love to.
Or ask me about the hobby projects I’ve been coding up on the side. Tell me about your little game idea that you’ve always wished someone would make. Perhaps you’re a programmer yourself? Why don’t we see if there’s an intersection of interests and make something together?

 

LIFE
If none of the above is striking a chord, then talk to me about how you’re afraid your new job is about to let you go. Or how your marriage is on the rocks. Or how you felt so proud of your son yesterday. Or how you’d like to go to therapy but don’t want to be labelled as having a problem. Or how you wish the world saw your autistic brother the same way that you do. Fact is, I’m a darn good listener, and I would be privileged to do just that.

 

 

CONTACT ME

And like I said, don’t feel like the ideas I threw out were the only one’s you can take me up on. Thought of something totally different that could be helpful for you? Great. I’d love to hear it.

To make things simple, you can just email me directly at abe.austin@gmail.com

If you don’t get a response, assume that it went to my spam. I promise I won’t ignore any reach-out that I receive. So if I don’t respond to your email within a day, then either send another or try using the Contact page of this site.

Okay, I think that about covers it.

If I’m being honest…I don’t actually expect anyone to reach out.

So prove me wrong.

I really would like to get to know you.