A Place Most Bizarre

Photo by anouar olh on Pexels.com

Big and Small Minds)

I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.

He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.

But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?

Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?

They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.

A Wonderland)

Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.

And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.

But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.

And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.

Fake Reality)

And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.

And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!

As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.

Keep Your Story Consistent)

Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.

And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.

A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.

After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.

I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.

Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.

If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.

I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.

Distracting Goodness

pexels-photo-1002693.jpeg
Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas on Pexels.com

Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.

But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.

In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.

I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.

 

It’s Too Much)

The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.

Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.

Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!

 

It Throws but Never Catches)

Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.

Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.

Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.

I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.

 

It Dramatically Changes the Tone)

The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.

Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.

In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.

 

In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.

On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!