Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.
There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.
Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.
First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.
One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:
“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”
“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”
And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.
This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.
Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.
Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”
This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.
With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.
I’ve never had the convenience of meeting the same person twice. I’ve known many people under the same name, and usually all somewhat similar to each other, but each comes from a slightly different context that has changed them. We speak of individuals, but inside every body lives a legion.
Our ability to change who we are is one of the greatest traits of humanity. It means that the sinner can repent, the simple can become wise, and the downtrodden can learn to hope. Obviously each of these traits can also flow in the opposite direction, too, but it is worth the risk of good people turning evil to preserve the opportunity for evil people to turn good.
Much of our thought is in fact spent contemplating how different we once were in the past, and how different we hope to be in the future. Both remorse and contentment are based upon perceiving a change of oneself, either for the better or the worse.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are beings that refuse to remain in one place for long, and that ever-shifting nature is sure to bleed through into all our creations. It was always inevitable that authors would endeavor to imbue their characters that same transient nature that was imbued in them.
Indeed many stories have chosen to make the changing nature of their character the entire focus of their tale! A Christmas Carol would be a story about absolutely nothing, if it did not feature the total transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Every scene and every experience is targeted towards pulling at that man’s strings, puppeteering him into the person he ought to be.
On the flip-side, tragedies are usually about the loss that comes by being unable to change. King Arthur has a lofty vision for a different sort of government, and for a time it seems he will achieve his aim. But it requires that his subjects to lift themselves higher, to overcome their vices and their follies. When they fail to do so, and instead hold on to their common vices, so too the kingdom must fall back to their debased level.
The example of dramatic change in a story that I wish to focus most closely on, though, is that of Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen goes to great lengths to get the reader to thoroughly despise the story’s leading man right from the outset. Then she has the challenging task of making us love him by the end.
This is wisely accomplished by gradually effecting the change over a great many scenes. At one party we see him recant his unwillingness to dance with Elizabeth, in another we hear tell of his generosity and kindness, shortly thereafter we witness his warmth to his guests, and in a letter we learn of the misunderstanding that led to his previous callous behavior. Then, finally at the end, he is selflessly sacrifices a massive amount of wealth for the woman he has come to love.
Just like Elizabeth Bennett, we have come to see him differently from how we did at first, and because the process has been so gradual and natural, we are able to believe in it. What is unique about Pride and Prejudice, though, is that while Mr Darcy does change somewhat over the course of the story, far more it is only the perspective of him that really evolves.
Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Jane Austen fully developed the character in her mind before beginning any writing, flaws and virtues and all. Then, all she had to do was introduce us to Darcy on a bad day–any character can be made to look negative when cast in the worst light–and then she just reintroduced us to the same man over and over in kinder and kinder lights.
Each new scene he still feels like a consistent character, because he remains the same person, just illuminated in a different way. And by blending all of these views together we finally come to understand him as a whole. By the end we perceive that he is still just as capable of being stuffy and judgmental to those he believes have malicious intent…but now we know that he also has a kinder and gentler side for those he trusts as well.
But not every story has to feature a complete reversal to change how we feel about a character. There are many tales that feature a great subtlety in how the character we are introduced to is shifted into someone else.
In the novel Mrs Dalloway, the entire arc of her husband, Richard, is that he progresses from feeling disconnected to his wife, to wanting to tell her that he loves her, to deciding not to actually go through it. Thus there is nothing particularly dramatic to his trajectory, but that does not mean his changes are insignificant. On the contrary, even in their quietness they mean everything.
Quite recently, I saw a film which had an excellent use of subtle change, the World War 1 drama 1917. In this movie two young soldiers are given the burden of carrying all-important orders to the front line. Their route is fraught with danger, but the lives of thousands of their comrades depends upon their success.
The film goes to great lengths to establish authenticity in its opening sequences, the dangers that the two face are very grounded. This sharp realism serves to make their situation all the more harrowing. You truly feel that two young boys have been sent out to face a very real menace, a horrible burden for anyone to bear, let alone those so inexperienced.
Things do become more grandiose as the film continues, but the vulnerability of the boys, particularly of the main character, Lance Corporal Schofield, remains. And that sense of youthful vulnerability continues clear to the end, when that main character finally collapses beneath a tree and pulls a tin out of his breast pocket. Therein we see the pictures of his wife and two little girls, which is a small revelation to the viewer. The question has been raised previously whether Schofield had a family, but with how the film has cast him in such a young and vulnerable light that seemed impossible.
Now, though, as with Mr Darcy, the perspective shifts. And though he is the same boy we have seen the whole film long, he is now colored in a new light. Where before he was only a boy, now he is a young father, shadowed by a big and scary world, but still trying his hardest to do his duty.
Thursday I shared the second piece of my current story, in which our main character started to be cast in a new light, just as Mr Darcy and Lance Corporal Schofield were. He yet remains the same man as before, but we start to feel differently about him. Clearly something ominous is looming before him.
As with the examples I have shared today, I hope it will be a story where it is the reader that changes more than the character. Also my hope is that when we see him at the end of the story, we will be able to resolve all of the previous perspectives that he will have been shown in. We’ll see whether I’m able to pull this off or not with my third and final entry this Thursday. See you there!
“Hello there, Taki,” Rhuni said. She spoke brightly, sweetly. Certainly far more than she had at their last conversation.
“Hello,” Taki said numbed.
She smiled and looked downwards. “I suppose… I must be the last person you wanted to see.”
“That’s not–well, I wasn’t expecting to see you, I suppose.”
“Hmm, no. I can’t imagine you would after how horribly I treated you. I wanted to apologize about that, by the way, first and foremost.”
He nodded. “And after that?”
“Oh Taki, don’t be so formal with me! It’s terrible. Can’t we talk to each other how we used to?”
“I don’t know that Warden Molo would appreciate that.”
She winced. “You’re bitter. That’s alright. You have every right to be. Like I said, I treated your horribly.” She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “I was wrong Taki, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was stupid and–and… oh Taki, I’m so sorry!” The tears suddenly burst out and she flung herself forward onto him, sobbing into his shoulder.
Taki patted at her hair awkwardly. It seemed the sort of thing to do, but it felt so strange to him now. Once it would have seemed so natural.
“Please don’t be so cold to me,” Rhuni continued. “All I’ve known these past weeks has been coldness. I knew Molo didn’t really love me, but he’s been so mean, so sneering and condescending. You don’t know how it’s been.”
“No, I don’t suppose that I do… What did you come here for Rhuni? Really?”
She looked up to him, eyes shining beneath tears. “Take me away from here, Taki. Can’t we go back to the dreams we had? Just you and I?”
Taki bit his lip, conflicted. He felt sympathy, he had to. But that didn’t mean he wanted the same things he once had.
“How would that even work, Rhuni? Molo is a powerful man, he knows everything that goes on in the city.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “We would have to keep a secret, wait a while until we could leave this planet. Just as we always dreamed we would!”
“So…wait and hope on those dreams? Just like before. Except waiting and hoping apart now, instead of together.”
“It wouldn’t be so long. I’ve heard about your success here in the races…in fact, that’s why I came today.” Rhuni pulled away from him and opened her shoulder-bag, rummaging for a moment and then pulling out a reference card like she was revealing a great treasure. “I’ve spoken with one of the sponsors in those leagues. He’s willing to represent you. From what I understand he’s one of the best, and he’s willing to see you get more than a fair cut of the winnings.”
“In return for you convincing me to run his colors…”
“Well…yes. See now we’re working together for our future,” she smiled brightly. “Just as it should be.”
Taki sighed. “I have dozens of these cards already Rhuni. Anyway, I thought you always hated these races.”
“I hate how they endanger you! And yes, I still do. But you’ve decided to do them, and from what I hear you’re quite good at it. Ready to move on to where real money gets made.”
“And to where things are all the more dangerous.”
“Well if you’re afraid of it then don’t do it,” she pouted. She blinked quickly and shook her head, then pushed that prior softness back into her face. “I’m sorry, Taki. No, of course I’d prefer you didn’t do this at all. I just thought you were already planning to, and thought I could help then. But–really, don’t do it–unless you want to.”
She bit her lip and Taki found he didn’t find that so cute anymore. She did it whenever she was afraid that she wouldn’t get her way. Had she always been like this?
“Actually I wasn’t planning to run in the higher leagues, Rhuni,” Taki finally said, folding his arms and leaning back. “They’ve been trying to bring me over for a while now but something just hasn’t sat right with me about it. I couldn’t place what it was until now. The problem is it would mean playing their game. The game of people like Molo, Zantar, Sovereign Prow… Those higher races are just propaganda for them. They finance the leagues, they set their runners against one another, they build lavish stadiums to show off, their sick money just flows through the whole sport like its lifeblood.”
He shook his head in disgust and then continued. “And all of it built on the backs of people like us. You know what the mortality rates are like for the engineers making those arenas. But what can they do? They say it’s illegal for us to grow our own food, but then they inflate its price until we’re too desperate to not take their contracts. No Rhuni, these illegal alley tracks are the only place a runner can compete with a clean conscience.”
“It’s wrong, but it’ll be happening whether you run there or not. Let them play their game, we’ll be the ones laughing when we leave this world with their money.”
“I can’t do it Rhuni.”
Rhuni nodded slowly, but her pursed mouth gave away her incredulity. When she spoke it was with barely-suppressed rage. “So then…you’re going to throw away all of our dreams, just for the principle of the matter?!”
“Far better than when you threw our dreams away for a lack of them.”
It was the first intentionally hurtful thing he had ever said to her. It was also the most honest. Rhuni’s lip trembled somewhere between anger and pain, and without a word she forced her way past him and out the door.
As the door closed behind her, he found himself alone at last. Taki put his hands over his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he really just done that? It surprised him…but he didn’t regret it. A few more silent moments passed, and then he heard the muffled voice of the Master of Ceremonies, calling for the racers in the next race to approach the starting line. Well, it was time to move forwards again.
Taki exited Boro’s shack and glanced to either side. The mechanic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Tala was still waiting for him.
“Whew,” she whistled impressively, “that girl looked real mad when she stormed out of here!”
“I’m not in the mood to discuss it, Tala,” Taki sighed as he began stumping towards the raceway. She hurried to keep pace with him.
“Well good, because I didn’t really want to talk about her either. But just tell me this, how do you feel?”
“What? I’m fine. Actually… now that I think about it I guess I feel pretty good!”
“Atta boy!” she slugged his armored shoulder, then winced and shook her hand. “So what’s next?”
“I’m not sure Tala. I do know that I won’t be moving on to the higher leagues, though. It just wouldn’t feel right to run for the men I’ve spent my whole life hating. And it doesn’t make sense to keep running around in these lower circuits either, pretty soon no one will compete against me anymore…I guess it’s time for something new.”
They had reached the starting point of the race. Taki took his stance and started looking over the track in front of him. Before he could really take it in though he felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He turned and Tala was still there. She was supposed to be back with the other spectators, but instead she was gesturing at his faceplate.
“What?” Taki said, pressing the button to retract the glass shield. “Is it coming loose.”
Instead of answering Tala gripped the metal plates on his shoulders and pulled him near. “I told you earlier, I don’t like boys who are angry and running away. I like a boy who’s chasing for something.” And with that she kissed him hard.
Taki was momentarily aware of the other racers glancing over awkwardly, and as if from a mile away he heard the Master of Ceremonies shouting out “Go!” Then, just as forcefully as she had pulled him near, Tala gave him a shove and pushed him off the precipice and into open space.
He fell backwards, staring up at her shrinking form. He grinned, flicked his faceplate back closed, and turned around to greet the ground. He reached the bottom with a full reservoir of stored energy. He looked off to a low boundary wall, angled his arm, and thrust himself towards it with all he had. The ground buckled at his departure, and in one smooth arc he closed the distant to the barrier and sailed clean over it.
The crowd behind him gasped in shock. Some of them even cried.
He had not only fallen out-of-bounds and forfeited the race. It so happened that that particular boundary was also the edge of their entire city, indeed of their entire world. Everyone knew it, yet somehow he had willfully, even enthusiastically, bounded over its matrix and dropped into “the chasm.” Now he would plummet for over fifteen thousand feet. He would hit terminal velocity and his suit would easily dispel the force on impact, but having once cast himself off of their space-scraper he would be forever lost to a strange and unseen realm: the ground-level.
Indeed, no one from their megastructures knew what lay down, down, down where he was going. Its murky depths hadn’t been explored for at least seven generations. Some said it had long since been entirely reclaimed by the wild, others said it was home to a brutish civilization straight out of the stone age. Still others said it was the only free place left on the planet, and that the beginnings of a rebellion took refuge there.
“Oh my,” Boro breathed out in awe from his perch among the other spectators. A strange glint of excitement twinkled in his eye, contrasting the horror that gripped everyone else. “Did you see that Tala?”
He turned, but the girl was not by him anymore.
“Tala?” he called, then noticed that the door to his workshop was open. He cocked his head in confusion, but before he could go over to investigate a silver streak came charging out of it.
Clothed head-to-foot in Taki’s spare suit, Tala was bounding towards the raceway.
“What are you doing?” Boro roared, but she dashed past him and swan-dove over the race’s launching point. Like a bullet she streaked down to the ground, her face etched with deepest resolve. She landed on the ground in the same crater Taki had left, and she similarly bounded from it, arcing high and wide over the same edge that he had vanished from.
The crowd exclaimed in shock again, the last sound she would ever hear from them. Their echoes fading behind, she turned her head downwards and dove again. Deeper, deeper, deeper. Chasing after him into the unknown.
Last week I spoke about the technical details of moving a story through time and space. I mentioned that the author has the power to flicker between different locations at will and quicken and slow the timescale freely. These are powerful abilities, and I tried to be cautious with them in this last post so as to not jerk the reader around in an uncomfortable way.
I knew, of course, that the ending of the story was quite dramatic, expanding the world in an instant into something many times the magnitude of what had been seen previously. I knew there were sharp shifts in the flow of time, such as when I froze it to dwell on the singular moment of Taki’s escape, immediately followed by a blistering account of how Tala followed after him.
My intention with that particular sequence was to blitz through Tala’s decision so quickly that it simply became a continuation of what came before, half of an orchestra beginning the crescendo with the rest joining in to finish it. It was a tricky transition, and maybe you could think of a way to better way to write it.
In any case, that brings us to the conclusion of Power Suit Racing. There has been a strong central theme to this story, one that was even reflected in my previous piece Washed Ashore. It is the idea of the chase, one of the most common plot structures in all of storytelling, and one that is forever adaptable to new interpretations. Come back on Monday where we will explore this concept more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!