Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.

“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.

Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”

‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!

Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!

Flip the Script)

In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.

One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.

The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.

And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.

Drama, character, and passion. All of these combine to make this less a scene of action as a scene of catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are utilizing those elements as a very effective portrayal of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.

Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.

The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.

This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.

Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.

It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.

Variety in Communication)

It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.

In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.

This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.

Why Do You Write That Way?

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It Once Was Much Worse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?"

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Specific)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Summary)

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

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

Let Me Interrupt You There

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Talking It Out)

Being interrupted is one of the most hated parts of communication. Every idea that we speak of comes with it a desire to be completed. To be stopped short of doing so is like feeling a sneeze that never comes to fruition. Understandably, interrupting another is therefore considered bad manners, and yet sometimes we feel the need to do it even so.

Conversations are not lectures, and the purpose of them is not to have one person express their opinions only. Each side needs to feel understood, and will therefore pull the conversation into a different direction as needed for them to be able to attain full expression.

A poor conversation will therefore become a constant war of jerking the focus back and forth. Each individual sees the other person’s expression and their own as being mutually exclusive, thus only one perspective can be conveyed, and so it must be their own. These sorts of conversations are called arguments, and they represent the worst possible form of communication. The inevitable result is that neither side receives full expression and both leave dissatisfied. This might occur by each escalating until they are shouting over one another, or else one turning submissive and just tuning out the ranting of the other.

That type of conversation is combative, whereas the ideal conversation would be collaborative. In collaborative discourses each side is actively trying to help one another to express themselves. They are each seeking to understand the other, as well as together uncover a shared middle ground. Each side leaves not only feeling fulfilled, but also larger in insight. Where argument shrinks you further into your own perspective, healthy discussion broadens it.

Interestingly, though, interruptions still occur in healthy conversations, they just take a different form. Instead of being competitive such as “oh never mind that, listen to this…” they become clarifying statements such as “hang on, I didn’t quite understand you there, did you mean…”

Positive conversations can also use gentle interruptions to cue where you think greener fields lie. They are a succinct way of asking “can we talk about this other matter now?”

 

Isn’t This a Story Blog?)

Thanks for that friendly interruption, guess I got a little off track. Because yes, all this does relate to story-telling, and I was hoping this conversation would steer towards that at some point!

In the end, a story is made up of many different parts, all of which need their say in the overall conversation. Plot needs to be thickened, characters need to be arced, tension needs to be built. A sloppy writer will slap these things back-to-back with no thought for how they gel together as a whole. It will make for a story that feels like it is combating with itself, each scene being a rude interruption to the one that came before.

But a skilled writer will let each scene seamlessly transition from one to the next in a way that collaborates in a cohesive narrative. Just as how two courteous conversationalists will take the last statement of the other as the launching point for their own piece, the next scene in the story will wait for a lull in the action of the current, segue on a shared theme into the new premise, and then proceed to express itself more fully. Even if the new scene is thematically contradictory to the prior, it will still feel like the two belong together and form a shared message.

Consider how this is accomplished in the example of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Two of this book’s voices are quite opposite to each other: one being that of rousing, epic action, and the other being of calm respites with fanciful fantasy characters. Are these two halves of the story breaking the overall narrative? No, they actually support one it together.

This is because one of the story’s overall themes is that good things are worth fighting for. The heroes of the story are convinced that there is a beautiful world which is deserving of their sacrifice to be preserved. In order for us to be convinced of this point as well, we need to spend some time in those beautiful places. And so an extended deliberation among Ents provides essential depth to the world and making the stakes of later conflict feel like they truly matter. We are intrigued by the odd mannerisms of the passive creatures during their entmoot, and then invigorated to see their race rescued through the rousing battle at Isengard. Each of the two sections combine to form a satisfying arc for the species.

 

Characters Arguing)

There is an example of interruptions in story-telling with my last entry of Washed Down the River. Here I had one character pick another up in his car, and then the two of them discussed the details of the case they were working while driving to their next lead. As they went, the discussion of the case was suddenly interrupted when Daley suggested doing something rash in regards to it. This derailed everything, and soon the two men were arguing about Daley’s aloofness to his friends, family, and life. Each of the two interrupted the other, and each tried to force their own perspective on the other, much like how the narrative forced this scene of conflict out-of-the-blue upon the reader.

Of course neither character was left satisfied by the conversation. Each became more entrenched in their own perspective. Then, right on cue, the two men arrived at their destination and the argument was put on pause as the case interrupted into the fore.

The sudden transition from case to argument and back to the case might seem disjointed, but it was so intentionally. The staccato of quickly moving pieces was meant to reflect the tension playing out in those scenes. At the same time, necessary housekeeping tasks were accomplished, such as reminding the reader of other threads that are a part of the story, and also of providing a distraction while loading in the next scene.

In the end I think I wrote scenes that feel chaotic and disjointed when taken individually, but which smooth out the overall narrative when viewed as a whole. One might say that I am trying to take many jagged parts and fit them into a unified mosaic.

With my next post we’ll be continuing that process, and along the way I will try to utilize each transition in as effective of a manner. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Hey, I’m Talking to You

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I remember a strange experience I had with communication several years ago. It was while I was at university, working as a Teaching Assistant and occasionally covering lessons for the Professor. One day while lecturing I had the distinct impression of the words emanating from my mouth, hanging in the air, and then falling to the ground, never being received by any of the class members. I didn’t blame the students for their blank expressions, I knew I was having trouble explaining the concepts in an intuitive and accessible manner. The words I was stringing together might have formed valid sentences, but to the class there was no meaning therein. All my life I had assumed the two (words and meaning) just automatically went together, now I knew they did not.

Ever since that day I have remembered that communication is composed of two halves, a giver and a receiver, and it simply does not occur when only one of those is present, or when the two are unable to meet on common ground. Similarly, though a written story may seem like a self-contained entity in-and-of itself, it is actually only a medium for communication, and therefore is forever incomplete if never opened, read, and understood. A story requires a meeting and comprehension between both a giver and a receiver, or else it is just words in a void with nowhere to go.

If you want the words of your story to go somewhere, to be picked up by an audience and internalized, then you have to know how to speak so that you can be heard. How you do that, depends first on deciding who your audience even is. There are multiple criteria by which you can filter the entire human population down to the subset your story is meant for, but there is one initial division that comes before all others. Are you writing for yourself, for one other, or for a group?

Writing for yourself is pretty straightforward, it means you are writing something that resonates with you, regardless of whether it resonates with anyone else. Perhaps you’ve thought of the book you wish you could be reading right now and, since it doesn’t exist, decided you’d create it yourself. Or maybe you’re just trying to process some personal drama, using your creativity to hash out all its possible permutations. You are speaking to your own hopes, your own fears, your own life situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is writing for a group. Here you identify a grouping, defined perhaps by age, language, social status, or common interest, and you compose something that you think will appeal to that crowd. Perhaps the most prevailing reason for this approach is that you wish to ensure maximum profit potential for your book as a commercial product. Thus you begin by identifying which subset of society you can best sell to, and then write in the way most likely to catch their attention.

In between, though, there is the story written for one other. The story won’t necessarily be about the author’s greatest passion, nor is it composed to be marketable to the widest possible audience. This is a story that it is written for a friend, a family member, or maybe even a nemesis. Perhaps you are writing to a member of a particular societal clique, but you are addressing that member, not the clique as a whole. As such, it is more akin to our common day-to-day communications. Me speaking to you. When one adopts this more conversational approach to storytelling there are some unique and charming results that naturally occur.

First of all, whenever you speak directly to someone on their own terms, you’re fairly likely to succeed at getting their attention. When I come up with bedtime stories for my boy, I make sure to use language that is suited to his understanding and that focuses on his own interests. As a result, he seems to be much more engaged with these stories than with most of his printed-for-the-masses storybooks. The lack of this directness in for-the-masses media is a problem for many blockbuster movies and bestselling books today. Because they are intended to make the maximum profit possible, they have to appeal to the widest audience possible, which results in them being as generic and featureless as possible. Many stories are unwilling to say anything beyond the mundane and obvious, out of fear of alienating a potential subset of society, which gives them a far shorter staying power. Going back to the verbal communication analogy, this can feel like listening to a speaker at a conference, one who is speaking both to everyone and no one at the same time, versus the experience of having someone look you in the eye and say something to you. I think most of us would prefer that second situation, even if we didn’t end up agreeing with everything that was said. We’d certainly remember what was said for longer.

Well what about when a story is written for oneself? That’s certainly writing for a very focused audience, isn’t it? It is, but the communication you give to yourself is again different from the type you give to others. Unfortunately, we can be very hard on ourselves, criticizing our every flaw, and regretting that we aren’t the successes we wanted to be. I imagine this occurs because of all the emotions we’ve ever felt, negative ones most easily bubble to the surface. While drawing from this well of disappointment can certainly be a therapeutic way to process these feelings, it can also make for some pretty bleak stories. Why should the main character get a happy ending if it feels dishonest with my own life? But things change when we speak to others. While we may be very hard on ourselves, we can be very kind to those we love. We tend to assume the best of them and wish the best for them. When we design a story from that point-of-view, all we wish to communicate is dreams coming true, love being found, adventures being shared, and good triumphing over evil.

I’m currently working on a novel that had its genesis in one of those pessimistic self-talks. The original design of it called for a family of explorers to come to a new island and, by their hard work and patience, raise a flourishing trade and community from the wilds around them. And then a monster comes and kills them all. Comically bleak, isn’t it? But that was fitting, because it was some bleak emotions that I was processing and trying to convey. It all had something to do with how our human failings can destroy all that is beautiful around us. Then I started to think about how this would be received by anyone else reading the book. I have several friends who have faced human failings in their lives, and I wouldn’t want them to read a book like this and think it was condemning them. Ultimately I felt the message wasn’t for the greater good, and the ending changed accordingly. There is still a monster, and it still seeks to destroy, but the story now suggests that it can be defeated by the very beauty it is trying to ravage, and innocence can be reclaimed.

Winnie-the-Pooh, The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Thomas the Tank Engine. Some of our most timeless tales and characters have come as a result of an author crafting a story for a specific individual. These stories are book-sized wishes for their readers to have lives as full of adventures and hopes as are contained within the tale. They are immortalized communications of love, given and received decades ago, yet ever fresh and new.

Of course, I do not mean to disparage the other types of audience a story can be written for, they each have their own pros and cons. I do feel, though, that this more direct and conversational form of story-communication too often gets overlooked. So if you find yourself struggling for inspiration, try asking yourself what sort of story you’d like to tell to the ones you love most. In the meantime, please come back Thursday when I continue with two more tales of Phillip the Mouse. Each of these are drawn from the bedtime stories I’ve shared with my toddler son, and each was designed based off of his personal interests and life events. They are examples of ways that I have used stories to speak to him about himself, and let him know how special he is.