Power Suit Racing: Part Two

 

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Part One

Taki felt a slight sense of reassurance as his suit hummed to life, filling its reserves with all of the kinetic energy he was generating. The unique function of Power Suits was their inertia-displacement-network, an interior mesh that could take his momentum and either absorb it or redirect it in another direction. The result was that Taki’s own body felt only a small fraction of the actual inertia, allowing him to survive impossibly high drops and make hair-pin turns at tremendous speeds.

All that was assuming that this crazy mishmash suit even worked, of course, and Taki was about to test that point. The ground was looming up to him at an incredible rate, and he spun his head to choose a target to bounce to. There was a vertical wall hanging from steel cables nearby, one that was low enough to reach with a small thrust.

Taki rolled in the air, changing from his freefall pose to a crouch, readying himself for impact. His feet hit the ground with a tremendous crack as he kicked off from it, angling in the direction of that vertical wall. The pavement beneath him buckled under the force of his departure and he spun up into the air, flung out with all the converted momentum of his freefall. Although to him it didn’t feel so much like a powerful fling, safe inside his suit it merely felt like a slight tug in that general direction.

Taki turned his head on a swivel, looking out for the other racers. Four others had chosen to peel off in a different direction, and the other three were following him to this vertical wall. That could get a little tight, but that’s what you got when you went for the most obvious route. In the end it didn’t matter which path you took to reach the destination, only that you got there first.

Taki rolled in the air, turning so that his feet would be planted against the wall. He extended his arms to signal the suit to divide his momentums. As his feet touched the walls’ surface he began running with most of his inertia propelling him forward, bounding down the length of wall at high speed. A small reserve of his momentum was consumed pushing him towards the wall, though, enabling him to defy gravity as he ran sideways along its surface.

It was a good start to the race, but Taki started looking for his next push. No matter how much energy you gained from that initial drop, it was never enough to carry you all the way to the finish. During the race one had to always be on the lookout for fresh sources of inertia.

Taki spotted another wall, this one horizontal, and it was painted in the bright yellow color that designated it as a “boost.” It was across and slightly up from him, far enough that it would strain all his remaining momentum to reach it. If he missed, he would clatter back down to the ground, bereft of any inertia, and would be unable to finish the race.

Timing was everything. Taki positioned himself, then pushed down hard with his last step and shifted his suit’s momentum towards the boost. His suit flung him in the desired direction, but it gave an ominous whine at the upwards strain. The noise distracted him so that he didn’t notice the green-suited competitor nearing him from behind.

A sickening thud sounded as the other racer collided into him with brutal force. Such moves were legal in the game, though they were still dangerous. Each suit could only tolerate so much of an impact before they would break apart and the racer would be exposed to all of the tremendous forces slamming into their body.

This other racer wasn’t specifically trying to break Taki’s suit, though, more so just shove him out of the way so that he would miss the boost. Instinctively Taki threw his hand out and gripped the ankle of his opponent, letting that racer’s suit continue to pull him in the correct direction. The two of them tumbled sideways onto the boost, and it propelled them forward with a blast, spinning them wildly through the open air.

Taki released his competitor and spun away, trying to get his bearings well enough to plan his landing. There was a tower just ahead of him, a hollow shaft that rose high into the air. He pointed his feet towards it, and on impact he kicked outwards and upwards, propelling himself higher up the inside of that shaft. He came near to another wall and kicked outwards and upwards from that one as well, returning to the first wall at a still higher point. He repeated this over and over, zig-zagging his way up the structure, hoping his momentum would last all the way to the top.

Once he cleared that top he would have a broad view, a big drop, and a lot of fresh inertia to work with. Hopefully that would be enough to make up for the considerable amount of time he was expending in here.

Taki closed the distance to the top of the shaft. His suit was straining to meet his repeated calls for more energy, but with a little extra tug from his arms he managed to clear the lip at the top.

For a brief moment Taki was suspended in midair, high enough that he could scan the entire rest of the raceway. He only had a split-second, but for him that would be enough.

First he picked out the finish line: a raised platform some hundred meters still distant.

Then he counted off every racer he could see still moving through the pitch. Two…three…four. The others must have crashed or run out of inertia. One of those four was hanging low and slow, likely not in the running for much longer. The other was up high on another tower, and the last, one in purple, was probably on track to reach the finish soonest. It was always hard to tell for sure in such a non-linear race.

Taki processed all of this, and then felt the rush as he began to plummet down towards the earth. His last act was to pick out his next series of moves. He would have to move quickly to catch the leader, that meant being bold and trusting that the rickety, old suit would be able to keep up.

As the air shrieked past his form he angled a tiny portion of his inertia to propel him slightly forwards. Thus he fell at a slant, gaining speed from the drop but also steering to be on approach to a distant boost laid out on the ground.

The bare ground rushed up to meet him, and with only three feet before impact Taki flung his inertia forward, reserving a tiny portion to push him upwards from the surface. The result was that he zipped forward like an arrow, barely skimming above the ground and avoiding all of its slowing friction.

He rocketed forward and hit the boost with some inertia still to spare. He pocketed that and watched the meter rise on his HUD as he flung forward with still greater speed. An upwards-sloping wall rushed outwards to fill his vision and he was running up its vertical stretch without a second thought. He summited that, then found himself looking down to the finishing platform just ahead. It was a single drop away.

His moment of elation wavered as he saw the purple streak of that other racer making for the prize. That racer was coming at it from a more grounded approach, sliding down a narrow beam that ended with a small jump to the platform. The racer was going to make it to the end before Taki.

Unless.

“14 torques, right?” he thought back to that pretty assistant’s claims.He twisted for his approach and punched his inertia forward. He lurched both forwards and downwards, maintaining a straight shot for the victory. As he fell through the air his suit filled up with kinetic energy, which he immediately called upon to propel him still faster. And with that faster falling came still more energy, and still he strained it for greater speed.

His eyes flicked to the display on his HUD that estimated upcoming impact forces. 11 torques. 12. 13.

He streaked past a purple blur. At least he wasn’t going to lose, then, it was just a matter of being able to live to tell anyone about it now.

He gave one last push to correct his angle of approach and then prayed that there would be something left in the reserves to dispel some of the blow he was about to take.

The black-and-white checkered paint flew beneath him. Taki spun in the air to set himself up for a roll.

15 torques.

The hard, gray pavement grew near enough to make out its every dent and crack.

16 toques.

Taki touched the ground. A small plume of smoke erupted around him as the meager reserve of energy remaining in his suit dispelled as much of the forces as possible. Then, with nothing left to power the inertia-displacement-network, Taki truly felt the ground.

It was like a sledgehammer being swung into his knees, sending shockwaves up and down his legs and dissolving all his bones. He couldn’t have remained standing if he wanted. He fell to his side and flung sideways across the ground in a cyclone whirl. He hit the ground the crunch, metal pieces breaking off his suit and zipping through the air like shrapnel. The ground battered his ribs and punched the air out of his lungs. Then he ricocheted up into the air, only to slam back down again, this time taking the sledgehammer on his back.

The entire world was a rotating blur, and Taki didn’t even see what it was that slammed into his legs and threw him into a spin. Now he both rotated and spun, but he also noticed that he was starting to slow down. He punched down with his entire forearm, grinding the limb into the ground. The acrid smell of burning metal filled his nostrils and his arm felt like it was being sanded to the bone, but he held it down firmly and at last felt himself slowing to a stop.

The patch of world he could see outside the helmet became stationary, but his insides were still churning like a storm within. Every square inch of him was aching, but at least that meant he was still alive! He started to laugh, but stopped when that brought sharp pains from his bruised ribs.

He was facing up towards the sun and he just lay there, not wanting to move again for as long as he lived. Suddenly a face slid into view, looking down at him from above. It was that girl, the one that worked for Boro.

“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said flatly.

“Yeah,” he winced. “Were you impressed?”

She scoffed and walked away.

“Hey, what’s your name?” he called after her, tenderly pushing himself up on his elbow. He winced, but slowly made his way back to his feet.

The girl was still walking away, pressing against the tide of other spectators that were rushing forward to greet the racers. They had all just arrived on the floating platform that hovered over the raceway and gave them a view of the action down below. The master of ceremonies swaggered forward and clapped Taki heavily on the back, a gesture Taki’s sore body did not appreciate.

“What a strategy!” the man bellowed. “I admit you had me scared there, but it seems you pulled through alright–”

“Yeah, yeah,” Taki said distractedly. He held out his digicard impatiently. “My winnings?” The man tutted at Taki’s bad manners, but swiped the card through a panel mounted to his arm and handed it back.

Taki elbowed his way through the small crowd and found Boro’s assistant moving away from the throng. She still had her back to him, but she was walking slowly. As if she wanted him to come talk to her more.

“Hey, hold up,” he called, hobbling his way over to her side. She didn’t try to get away from him, but she didn’t look at him either. “So wait, you’re mad at me?” He asked. “I won, didn’t I? And that’s good for you, isn’t it?”

“What do I care if Boro gets richer?” she said shortly.

“Well…what do you care about then?”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes.

“What? Were you worried about me?” His voice was hopeful.

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Well I don’t see why else you’d be upset.”

“Maybe I just don’t like to see a waste of good machinery.”

“Oh come on, it was my first race in years. I’m still getting back the feel of things.”

“And just what is it that brought you back here for your ‘first race in years?'” she asked pointedly, finally targeting him with her accusing glare.

He felt exposed and awkwardly fluttered his eyes downwards. “It was just–time for a change, I guess.”

“Uh-huh.” She folded her arms, unconvinced.

“I guess I was angry.” He surprised himself at the admission.

Her eyes narrowed, but some of the hostility seemed to dissipate. She leaned forward. Close, very close. Taki swallowed nervously.

“Well I don’t like boys who are angry,” she breathed so softly it was barely audible.

He blinked back at her, but she turned and stomped her way back to the spectator’s platform. He didn’t try to talk to her again, he shuffled onto a different side of the platform and silently wondered at the confusion that was churning inside of him.

Why was he worrying what some girl thought of him? Hadn’t coming here been about not caring what girls thought anymore? Well… and apparently also about being angry. Why had he said that? And now that girl seemed angry, too. Why did that bother him? Why did it excite him?…

What was her name?

Taki was pulled out of his reverie when the floating platform returned to the starting point of the raceway and all of the passengers disembarked. He looked forward, his former resolve crystallizing again in his heart, redoubling even. He strode purposefully over to Boro who was smiling broadly from the doorway of his shack.

“That was quite the stunt you pulled, sonny. Couldn’t have managed something like that with one of the pretty models, I promise you that.”

“Your suit did good,” Taki affirmed. “I imagine it’s going to take a while to repair it now?”

“Well yes…and there’s not going to be much of the winnings left after we detract the cost for that. But I like the way you run, so I’ll let you keep a full thirty percent of the remainder!”

“Keep it,” Taki said. “Use it for the down payment on my second suit.”

“Your–second suit?”

“Yes, I’m running in the next race available. Meanwhile you fix the first and I’ll swap back and forth between the two, paying off both as I go.”

“That’s…not standard practice,” Boro said in bewilderment, still trying to wrap his head around the notion.

“No it’s not, but I intend to run a streak that isn’t standard either. Now you said you liked the way I run and I’m giving you the opportunity to double your earnings. Do we have a deal or not?”

Out of the corner of his eye Taki saw the pretty assistant approaching the two of them. He pretended not to notice, instead giving Boro all of his attention. The squat man was squinting, sizing Taki up.

“Alright, deal,” Boro finally concluded, holding out his hand.

Taki shook it, then turned to sign up for the next race.

“Tala,” the girl’s voice rang out from behind him. “My name is Tala.”

He turned and smiled to her. She had a curious expression on her face, not one of approval, nor one of disappointment. Just curious. It was like she was sizing him up as well, wondering what he was capable of.

“Thank you, Tala,” he said politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” And with that he resumed his walk back to the grandstands. He, too, wondered what he was made of. Well, soon they all would have their answer.

 

On Monday I mentioned that for this post I needed to pull off an action sequence that would be both interesting and exciting. If this sport fell flat then the whole story would as well, as it is the central setting of the work.

To achieve the “interesting” I wanted the mechanics of the game to be unique and intricate. To achieve the “exciting” I wanted the pace to be snappy and action-packed. These two requirements put me in the middle of a difficult balancing act.

You see explaining the mechanics would be best if I went over them in the very moment of action. A big exposition dump that details everything beforehand just gets glossed over by the reader, with very little information actually being absorbed. Educators have long known the best method for teaching is to give a short description, followed immediately by active illustration. In your writing you should always strive for the same.

But I also knew that I couldn’t be bogging the action down with these explanations either. It’s supposed to be a fast-paced sport, and wedging a fat paragraph of exposition between every lightning-fast maneuver would absolutely kill the pace. Never forget that when two moments are interrupted by a wall of explanatory text between, it will feel to the reader as if the action took as long to happen as the time it took to read everything.

A lot of my effort therefore went into getting my descriptions as short and precise as possible, which is a very worthwhile exercise for its own sake! I’m personally pretty happy with the results, though I do feel some parts still flow better than others.

Another important part of this segment is that we see our main character undertaking a drastic change in his life. He is literally diving headlong into a fast and visceral world, hoping to find some missing part of himself therein. This idea of a character being reimagined as something new is a classic of literature. There has always been something epic in the notion of a character’s rebirth.

Often when an element is so integrated with literate we find that it comes with a whole train of associated tropes, and “rebirth” is no different. On Monday I’d like to explore those common trappings further, and then next Thursday we’ll start to see how Taki faces this push to evolve. I’ll see you there, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Power Suit Racing: Part One

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“I promise you I’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted. We’ll live in a beautiful home just like this one with  and we’ll never have to scrounge for anything. We’ll never wonder where the next meal is coming from. No one will push us around anymore… Whatever you’ve dreamed, you’ll have it.”

“Taki, please stop, you’re making this harder than it needs to be.” Rhuni shook her head sadly, clearly uncomfortable with the young man’s shameless blubbering. “Just accept that this is for the best. For both of us.”

“What about all the dreams we made?” Taki persisted, hot tears shining in his eyes. “All the promises we made to each other?”

“They were dreams and promises,” Rhuni shrugged. She looked towards Taki, but he noticed that she seemed to be looking through him, rather than at him. “Dreams are nice for awhile, but eventually you have to wake up to reality.”

“And promises?”

“Are empty words.”

Taki was visibly wounded by that. “You–you never meant any of it?”

“It was nice to play pretend, Taki, but now I’ve grown up. I suggest you do the same. If you can’t do that, then at least get off of the lawn before Molo finds you here and has you beaten.”

Still refusing to look at him properly she turned her back and walked away as coldly as she could manage. Walked away through the balcony doors and into the rich interior of Warden Molo’s harem.

It wasn’t actually a harem, that was just the name Taki and Rhuni had come up with for it. It was the wealthy man’s estate, and it was said that no one entered it except by selling their soul to the cold man. No one was admitted but by crawling to his boots and trading their dignity for the comforts that lay within.

Calling it a harem had almost been a joke, but it was disturbingly more literal now that Rhuni had accepted a marriage proposal from Molo. She would become his wife that very night. To her credit, she didn’t try to pretend that it was for love, clearly she was just too tired of trying to scratch out a miserable existence in the underbelly of Romudar City. Evidently the contentment of being Taki’s girl had not been equal to the promise of air-feathered pillow chambers and self-mobilized living pods.

It was a full five minutes before Taki realized he was still standing dumbfounded on the same spot where she had left him, his mouth hanging agape. He turned around and walked away, but his heart was still rooted to the spot. He could almost hear it tearing from his body as he left, leaving the organ to thump uselessly on that perfectly manicured lawn.

One moment and everything he had believed about life was gone. He had known Rhuni since before he could remember and they had grown up on the streets together. They had spent their days pulling off schemes, and their nights dreaming of days when the schemes would no longer be necessary. Always those dreams had been of the two of them together, just the two of them above all else.

Now that Rhuni had changed her mind, Taki did not know what was left for his life. She had been a very real part of him, and who he was now without that part he did not know.

Though he barely ever had enough money to ever get by, somehow he had still managed to scrimp and save, parceling away a few digital tokens here and there. Over the years he managed to amass the beginnings of a small fortune. His idea had always been to buy a ticket offworld for him and Rhuni, go somewhere else where they could start a new life together. He hadn’t known where exactly. Anywhere other than here.

He pulled his digicard out of his pocket, flicking through the displays until he reached the currency storage. 1100 tokens. Useless to him now. Still worth the same sum as ever, but with no purpose for its existing. Just like him.

Taki had not been paying attention as he was walking, and his legs had been moving him somewhere of their own design. As he started paying attention to his surroundings again he realized he was in a region of the city that he hadn’t frequented in years.

“…with a prize purse of…what’s that ticker at?… 847 tokens!”

Taki turned and saw the sportscaster calling out the summons for a Power Suit Race. Suit racing was a favorite past-time of the rich and poor alike, a venue that promised a man that he could become whatever he wanted, regardless of money or status…given he could survive the very high mortality rate inherent in the sport. Taki had tried chasing those dreams once before, stopping only when Rhuni had pleaded with him to not be so careless with his life.

“You’ve still got ten minutes before the registration closes,” a female voice was hawking to the crowds from Taki’s side. He turned to see a young, pretty woman wearing the brown jumpsuit of a mechanic’s assistant. “Our suits are guaranteed to survive a force of up to 14 torques!” she continued. She saw Taki’s eyes on her and flashed him a wink and a smile.

Taki took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to think this through. He had spent a whole life carefully planning and preparing, and all for naught. Now the idea of plummeting recklessly thousands of feet into a world of speed and danger sounded like just the ticket.

“Give me one,” he heard himself say as he simultaneously slapped his digicard on the young woman’s countertop. She glanced down at the counter’s overlay to read the amount.

“1100?… That’s not even a fourth of the cost. You know how this works then?”

He nodded, already well familiar with the standard suit-loaner terms. “The suit still belongs to you. Any winnings I make go first to covering repairs, the rest gets split between paying off the rest of the suit and me keeping the rest. Twenty-five percent to me, as I recall.”

Twenty. We’ve had to raise rates after a bad rash of first time jumpers pasting themselves across the tarmac.” She rolled her eyes in disgust, evidently less concerned with the lives of those jumpers than with the loss of their suits. Then she furrowed her brow and squinted at him. “You’re not a first-timer, are you?”

He shook his head. “I’ve raced. Under the name Dakker, you can look up the record.”

She nodded, handing him his digicard back. “Talk to the man in the back,” she jerked a thumb behind her towards a greasy mechanic pod. “You’ll need to suit up in a hurry if you’re going to make this next race.”

Taki rounded the counter and ducked through the low door into the small building. It was covered in all manner of scrap parts and cannibalized equipment. A short, stocky man was working at a table with his back to Taki, vigorously forcing one piece through the length of another.

“I’m here for a suit,” Taki declared.

“Excellent,” the worker grunted, extending a grimy hand backwards for Taki’s digicard. Taki handed it to him and the mechanic placed it into a terminal that hanging from his neck by a length of steel cord. “I’m just finishing with the suit now.”

He took the two pieces he had been shoving together and pressed them into a vise, switching it on to apply enough pressure for a cold weld. Now that Taki could see it he recognized it as a neck-piece that had been cobbled from two completely different suits into one.

“Just finishing with it?!” Taki exclaimed. “This doesn’t exactly look safety and regulation certified, you know!”

“Ehhh–nope,” the man said slowly, turning to fix Taki with a sheepish shrug. He stroked the stubble on his fat chin thoughtfully then shrugged again. “I’ll take 780 off the final price for that lack of reassurance. Alright?”

Taki shot a look over his shoulder. The pretty assistant was grinning back at him, followed by another reassuring wink. Taki wrinkled his nose, but turned back and nodded.

“If you can actually have it ready in time, then I’ll take it.”

The mechanic was twisting a headpiece onto the neck of the suit and smiled to see that it actually fit. “It’s all ready now. Come on over.” He held up the suit, revealing a mishmash of steel and titanium. Almost every piece bore an entirely different design and color, remnants of the suits that they had originated from. One arm was sleek and the other was scuffed. One pectoral was angular, the other was lumpy, as though someone had tried to straighten it out with a hammer. The clear face-shield was already cracked.

Taki took a slow, bracing breath, then stepped up to the suit, turned his back to it, and spread his arms out in a T. The short mechanic flipped a switch on the suit and the front panels swung outwards, allowing Taki to step back into its confines. The panels slid back closed, some with a little encouragement from the man.

“Hey, what’s your name?” Taki said to the mechanic.

“Boro. Why?”

“It’s always nice to know who built your coffin.”

Boro looked genuinely hurt.

“You think it’s easy working with parts like I have?” He shook his head and tutted. “One of those pretty salesboys pushing the latest models wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do if a single screw came loose while suiting up. But me, I know what I make. So long as you don’t run like an idiot this suit will do you up fine.”

“Now don’t feel bad, Bor,” the assistant said from the doorway. “The boy already made up his mind to run for us, didn’t he? He just wants to make a big show of it.”

More than the accusation Taki felt stung by the “boy” label, but a good retort didn’t immediately present itself to him so he let the comment slide.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have a race to attend,” he said to the two partners. As he stepped forward the suit’s servos gave an ominous whine, then began moving more freely as he strode onto the road. The crowds were already lining up against a nearby railing on either side of the deep plunge down into the raceway. Taki scanned the mass of people for the registrar, and found the man making his way back to the administration booth already.

“One more!” Taki called out, sprinting over to the official and waving his arms.

The registrar shook his head in frustration, but stopped to wave his wand over the series of scratches on the suit’s left shoulder that defined its serial number. They were obviously fabrications that Boro had etched himself, but the registrar didn’t seem too concerned about that. This was a slum race: Alley Tier. No one was going to be running a legitimate suit.

Taki thanked the man and ducked over to the other challengers who were already in their positions at the very lip of that steep drop. The announcer shot him a dirty look for arriving late, but also care enough to bar him from competing. Instead the man proceeded in extolling the finer points of this track to the crowd.

“…a total elevation change of negative four thousand feet from drop to finish, with a final climb of seventy-five. Twenty-three vertical platforms arranged for particularly tricky lateral runs, eleven gravity wells, and thrusters hidden around every bend! All to provide you the finest in entertainment pleasure, financed graciously by the following sponsors…”

Taki leaned forward to take the track in for himself. He knew that in the higher leagues these things were usually designed with care and around particular themes. But here, as with all alleyway runs, the course was just a random array of different platforms and walls scattered haphazardly all around. One of the key characteristics of Power Suit Racing was that the layout was never the same from one race to the next. Racers were expected to be able to adapt and find their own way. And so these moments at the edge of the jump were essential for mapping out your route to the finish. But those plans were always quickly discarded anyway. No matter how well you planned, something would always go wrong, and from there you just had to think on your feet.

I wish Rhuni was here.

It was a strange thought, one that caught Taki off guard. It didn’t really make sense either, she had always hated these races with a passion.

That’s the point.

“…and GO!”

Taki cursed himself for getting distracted and flung himself over the edge a moment later than his competitors. He felt that old, familiar rush as he entered freefall. He felt the jolts of excitement as the air buffeted his plunging form, nothing between him and pure speed.

How he had missed this.

***

I mentioned on Monday about how motivations are used to drive the character, and how the resultant actions need to come with consequences that either reaffirm their initial desires or else undermine them. In this section of the story we see how Taki is driven by anger and loss, which have led him to taking more reckless actions.

But in doing so, Taki is merely making choices that will bring his external life into harmony with his inner turmoil. There at the end it was suggested that these races upset the carefully laid plans of the competitor, requiring them to figure things out on the run. This is exactly what has happened to him in life as well.

And so while there is a harmony between emotions and actions, they are towards an experience that is reckless and chaotic. In our next section of this story we’ll explore see that Taki might be doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. He’ll begin to shift in his motivations, trying to find a better cause to run for.

Before that, though, I want to acknowledge a tricky situation I’ve put myself in with this story. All of the story thus far has been building up to this race, and it is obvious that this sport is going to be central to the rest of the plot. This creates an unspoken promise to the reader that this race is going to be something worth reading about. The reader expects me to craft something exciting, and if I don’t they will naturally feel disappointed. This is a tough place to be in, but it happens in our stories all the time. Come back next week where we discuss this situation in greater detail, and until then have an excellent weekend.

Raising the Stakes

loser winner coins poker
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Quality over Quantity)

There is a common misconception in storywriting where the more lives that hang in the balance the more important the story is. The classic scenario is a sequel that has to up the ante from the tale that came before, and does so by just expanding the region of impending destruction. First a village is being threatened, then a nation, finally the entire world. I’ve mentioned this trend in a prior post.

Now there’s nothing wrong in a sweeping epic with massive armies clashing into one another and the fate of the entire world on the line. Writers just need to be sure that they aren’t falling for tired clichés, or trying to use “epicness” to compensate for an otherwise weak narrative. If the entire world is at risk it should only be because that is what is needed for the story to work.

The other thing writers need to be aware of when setting their sights so high is that this may not actually be the most effective method of getting your reader to care about your story. Quite frankly you don’t need genocide to give a story weight, you only need to threaten a single character that you have made me care about. That’s the key to truly giving your stories meaningful stakes: quality over quantity.

 

Examples)

Interestingly, this notion has been wonderfully illustrated in a comic-book movie of all things. In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the main protagonist is mortally wounded and Liz journeys to the Angel of Death to save him. There she is cautioned that his survival will ultimately doom all of humanity, to which she replies she doesn’t care, she just wants him restored. In real life this would be a choice of immense selfishness, but in the context of the story we, like Liz, care far more for the individual we know than the countless ones we don’t. To us the characters we have met and interacted with are actual persons and all the masses are nothing more than set dressing.

Consider also the deeply moving mistreatment of Tom Robinson, Jem, and Scout in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these characters is menaced by a common foe in Bob Ewell. Though the entire story takes place in a sleepy, little town with only a few lives hanging in the balance, we feel greatly affected nonetheless. Not in spite of its quiet, low-scale realism, but because of it. We feel incensed at the prejudice shown against Tom Robinson because we know such injustices really do happen. We are terrified by Jem and Scout being attacked on the road from school because that is a very real fear for all with children.

And the tension is all the higher because of the close intimacy of the villain to his victims. Were Bob Ewell a war-mongering tyrant sweeping through the land with countless soldiers he would have been far less unnerving. There is something chilling about the frankness of a solitary drunk staggering through the woods at night.

Even when writing a story that is larger than life, you still need strong, individual characters that the reader cares deeply about. The bigger action will only be affecting insofar as it applies to those individuals you care for. Consider the film Patton, which features an epic scene where the general fields tens of thousands of men and machinery are against another army in vicious battle. This scene only lands because it has been preceded by one of Patton standing alone in the street, wielding a handgun against a swooping fighter jet. We care for the man’s commitment, foolish as it may be, and it is that which leads us to care about his triumph in the greater war.

 

Implementations)

In each of my stories during this last series I have tried to focus primarily on the small and intimate relationships over the large and abstract. Let us consider the ways I implemented smallness into the bigger picture.

With the Beast had a very limited cast of only five individuals. And one of those individuals, the reader, is an invisible observer of the other four. Essential to working with a small cast is that each must have a very distinct voice. John was the voice of wisdom and stability, William was drive and ambition, Clara was innocence and naiveté, Eleanor was compassion and concern. The very first thing I did upon introducing these characters was to illustrate these fundamental differences. If readers are going to connect with your core characters they have to understand them, and the more distinct those characters are the faster that understanding will be established.

The Heart of Something Wild also featured only a few core characters, but additionally an entire tribe stood in the background. Here I found myself in an interesting situation where I needed the audience to care about that tribe, but at the same time keep my work within the short story format. I didn’t have enough time to really bring the community to life for the reader, and so I used a compromise. I instead tried to earn the audience’s affection for the main character, Khalil, and then asked them to inherit his concern for the tribe. Whenever a reader makes a connection with a character, they will naturally come to care for the things that that character cares for, just as with Patton and his war.

In Glimmer I have had the same conundrum repeat itself. Reylim has come to Nocterra to ignite it and allow for countless generations to live their lives, and so the fate of the entire world really is hanging in the balance. I knew that it would be impossible to quantify the weight of that, so instead I chose to focus on individuals. I even explicitly state that the mission here is not about the world, it is about Reylim’s personal growth and development. I only ask the reader to invest in Reylim, with the understanding that the fate of the world will simply be a byproduct of her own development.

In just this last section I finally allowed Reylim and the reader to witness the lives that she was fighting for. I knew I didn’t want to do this with a meaningless montage of the masses, though, so again I limited myself, this time with a sample of three intertwined souls. Their story was meant to be a representation of all the rest of humanity, and as such incorporated timeless themes of love, jealousy, regret, atonement, and closure. In this way the focus of my story remained personal and intimate, but also made the whole world matter more.

 

It seems that people are excellent at extrapolating the masses from a small selection. Usually when we see a group of people all we see is a group, but when we see a single individual we see a representation of all mankind.

So if you want the reader to care about the bigger picture, all you need to do is extract from those masses a smaller representation of characters and make the audience care for them instead. And if you don’t have a bigger picture, don’t worry about it. It may make for a more exciting movie trailer to see huge armies pouring into one another’s ranks, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. There can still be a sense of epic importance in the struggle of an individual soul. Indeed, I would argue such stories are usually far more weighty than those about the thousands.

On Thursday I will post the fourth segment to the Glimmer story, and in it I intend to make the action firmly focused on Reylim and her own personal journey. I’ll see you there.