The Watering Hole

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A Calm Amidst the Storm)

There is a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which the main character has trespassed onto forbidden lands and seeks the aid of a disembodied demon. He presents a young woman who has been sacrificed and pleads for her soul to be returned to her body. He is told that his wish may be granted…but only if he is able to defeat sixteen colossi in battle, each of which is scattered across the land. A very dangerous undertaking to be sure, but one that he will gladly face to save her.

And so he goes out, toppling one giant monstrosity after another. And at the conclusion of each battle he falls unconscious, only to awaken back at the hall where he has laid the young woman’s body on an altar. Each time he awakens the exact same ritual commences: the statue representing the most-recently-dispatched colossus bursts into pieces, the disembodied voice tells him where he must go to face his next quarry, and the boy sets off to fulfill the task. It a scene very reminiscent of Hercules returning to King Mycenae after each of his labors to receive the next piece of his penance.

Over and over the pattern repeats in Shadow of the Colossus. Each chapter is book-ended by this same return to the hall and altar. You become very familiar with this place, and in its repetition it starts to become personally meaningful. The cavernous chamber, the flowing staircase, the never-ending bridge…without even trying to one starts memorize every little detail. This place starts to feel like home.

In a game otherwise filled with danger and tragedy this is a most welcome respite. Each new challenge features new settings, new dangers, new puzzles. They can become quite taxing and fraught with frustration. But that’s alright, because each of them is also set apart from the others by this singular moment of reprieve. Like Hercules, each new task may be a novel and difficult experience, but the hero is able to feel safe and comfortable for a brief while before trekking out once more.

A Shortcut to Pacing)

Even the most exciting of stories needs moments of calm. A story that is only made up of intense action will soon fail to have any impact, it will lose its voice within its own noise. There has to be variety, there has to be escalation and de-escalation.

And returning to a familiar setting is one of the quickest ways to bring the tempo back to a calm state. Soothing background music can help, soft voices can help, warm colors can help…but the best thing of all to calm the audience’s nerves is to put them in walls that are well-known and safe. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, you want them to have a place that just feels like home.

And one medium that is especially able to make a place feel familiar and safe is the television show. By having episodes strewn over a period of years, developers have great opportunity to repeat settings until they are second-nature to us. And when one of those familiar places is reserved for scenes that are always calm and happy, then the viewer starts to feel better just by being there.

And so in Star Trek: The Next Generation a favorite haunt is Ten-Forward, the futuristic bar where characters come to share a drink and a little bit of gossip. Other places on the ship are often subject to laser blasts and torpedoes, but Ten-Forward, by contrast, is usually the setting where characters only come after all the chaos is past. It is a place for quietly reminiscing, for exploring relationships, for casual words.

Episodes of MASH might be fraught with wartime violence, overbearing stress, and the looming specter of death…but regularly the cast will come back together for a friendly game of Poker in Hawkeye’s tent. No matter how chaotic things are elsewhere, the Poker night immediately resets the tone to something calm and safe.

Every episode of the old Mission: Impossible series is fraught with spies, deception, and danger. But each episode also begins in a calm apartment where the team methodically plan out their disguises and test their equipment. It is only a brief segment in each episode, but it always allows the audience to settle into the plot from a familiar setting.

A Shifted Perspective)

However, regularly returning to a familiar scene does not only have to be used to reset the audience’s emotions. Sometimes returning to an old haunt can actually be used to illustrate just how different the characters within it have become. Yes the setting is familiar, but the spirit of it feels entirely new.

Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in A Christmas Carol. Throughout the tale Ebenezer keeps leaving and returning to this place, and each time the room is completely the same as before. And it is that sameness that makes his own personal change stand out in stark relief.

We are first introduced to it when he comes home from a long day of work, sets the many locks on its door, and takes a supper of gruel in the dark. It is a mean and meager place, thrifty to the point of oppressiveness, and it is in perfect harmony with the man that lives in it.

Then the visitations from the spirits begin, and Christmas Past takes Ebenezer down a painful walk of his own memories. We see his life laced with one regret after another, until he refuses to continue the journey any further, and forcibly returns back to his bedroom. He is filled with deep relief to be back home, and suddenly we see the room how he sees it: not meager and dark, but close and safe. In its confinement he feels secure. It is his fort to keep out all the outside world, and all the pain of his past. For the first time, we pity him.

Next comes the visit of Christmas Present, who shows him how much more mirth and love is occurring outside of these walls on Christmas day. Scrooge finally starts to long for more, and the dankness of his hovel is emphasized even more than before.

Finally Christmas Future comes, and of all the places that he could show Ebenezer, he shows him the future version of this very same bedroom. It is the room, after Ebenezer has died.

This is the only time the room actually changes, and we are shocked to find that it is able to become even more bleak than before, with bed curtains stolen and a single sheet laid over a solitary, lonely corpse.

And then, after that moment of absolute darkness, we return to the room once more as it is today, and by contrast it now seems a place of life and hope. In fact the sun is raising, and the windows are thrown open to let that light in. Ebenezer is still alive, and he still has a chance to make this room a place of joy.

A single, solitary room, a room that does cannot speak a single word of dialogue. Yet so much is said in the many different ways we behold it.

I am trying my hand at writing a single location that returns multiple times in The Favored Son. The centrifuge has been visited twice already, and each time under very different contexts. The first time is at the very beginning, when things are still relatively calm and carefree. The youth are quibbling about leadership, but there aren’t any serious stakes at play.

The second visitation takes place after the youth have been attacked and retreated to the centrifuge for safety. Suddenly its annoying complexities become securities. It is a place of safety, a place that feels an essential to survival. Again the students are conflicted about questions of leadership, but there is a desperate urgency to it now.

There is a third visit to the centrifuge yet to come, and this one will occur when the students are in a place of utter defeat. The brokenness of the place’s columns should carry a significance then that was never felt before. The question of leadership will finally be put to rest. It will be a scene of old ideas and hopes being laid to rest as well, while a bleaker dawn arises.

Before we get to that, though, we’ve got to actually have the youth be broken. I’ll be getting into that with my next post on Thursday. As you read that entry, consider how I am setting things up to make the next visit to the centrifuge feel fundamentally different than any time before.

Universal Languages

close up of globe
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In a prior blog post I shared an experience I had while teaching in University. I was saying all the words to correctly describe the concepts I was supposed to be teaching, but I could tell that none of it was being comprehended. The students could understand every word that I was speaking, just not any of what was actually being said. In that moment I felt that the English language had failed me.

I’ve been on the other end of that experience as well. In my career I’ve received all manner of technical training, and I’ve certainly been guilty of just nodding my head while all of the information goes in one ear and out the other.

As a reader you’ve probably experienced this, too, moments where you read and reread the author’s prose, but just can’t seem to get what it is they are trying to say. In fact, for a writer to communicate their ideas effectively is probably more difficult than with any other communication medium. These efforts to paint worlds with words often requires pushing the boundaries of written languages to their very limits.

For one thing all visuals have been removed from the communication, everything has to be imagined. For another each language has its own blind spots where they lack the words to convey certain thoughts. Then, of course, there is also a strict limitation on the number of words that can be put in a sentence before it falls apart under its own weight.

Finally there is another limitation of words, one which I want to focus on particularly. Words tend to only be useful down to a certain level of detail. They are good at communicating complex associations, but fall apart at the very simple things. As an example, it is easy to describe the wavelength characteristics of light, how they excite photoreceptors in the eye, the electrical signals that are then sent to the brain, and how all of this results in the sensation we call “the color blue.” But now can you tell me what it is actually like to see “the color blue?” Someone that is blind from birth can understand all of the technical details, firing the neurons necessary to stow the data in their brain. But they will never find the words that will fire the other neurons necessary to artificially reproduce the sensation of seeing color.

And yet…sometimes when I read words I do experience a physical sensation. When I read a menu I might salivate over the food being described and seem to taste them already in my mouth. Why is that? It turns out that this occurs when words are used as triggers to access memories in my mind. It’s not that any of the words “grilled shrimp slathered in garlic and butter” are inherently delicious in their composition. Rather it is the the memories those words call up that are delicious.

Think of it this way: the words on the page are the address on the envelope, leading you to the residence of your own memories. In this way any words can could be used to call up any experience, there just has to be an association between them. When my wife and I speak to each other we are able to use a shorthand because we know so well the memories one another holds and the words that will access them. Communication becomes less about what is being said, and more about the experiences that have been shared.

There’s a few important lessons in this for all writers. Let’s take a look at them one-at-a-time.

You Need to Connect)

When Pixar released their film Up they were lauded for their powerful opening montage. In this sequence we are introduced to the main character, Carl and a young girl, Ellie. We then watch the two of them become best friends, fall in love, get married, share a life, and then separate when Ellie passes away. Not only does this provide an emotional journey, but one that is shared between the main character and all of the audience.

From this point on the viewers now share a common language with the story. Everything that follows in the plot will makes perfect sense. We understand why Carl is grumpy, why he is irritated by a young adventure-seeker, why is so reluctant to leave his home. When Carl reacts to events that are happening around him we feel a ripple of that same reaction within ourselves because we remember the same things that he is remembering in that moment. We just get it.

If you want your reader to care about the things that happen in your story, you have to share meaningful experiences with them as soon as possible so that they will relate to the character’s state-of-mind. Then your protagonist and the reader are speaking the same language.

 

Describing vs Sharing)

But of course, part of using a shared language to connect to a reader is knowing when not to use this trick. In that same film, Up, we are later introduced to the villain, Charles Muntz. From his own lips we learn how he was pushed out from society’s limelight and ridiculed until he became obsessed with a monomaniacal objective. He has his reasons for his disposition, but those reasons are only described to us, not shared first-hand as they were with Carl’s past.

This is not the story being lazy, though, it is actually very clever. This technique means we don’t feel what Charles feels and we easily reject his conclusions. His sob story is supposed to go in one ear and out the other and that’s just what happens. We hear his woes, we don’t care, and we move on.

Why doesn’t the story want us to feel sorry for Charles? Because that would only get in the way of the experience the story wants us to be having in this moment. What the story wants is for us to be sharing in Carl’s sense of betrayal at this discovery. That sensation comes through loud and clear because of how the story has prioritized its communication to us.

Describe an experience when all you need is for people to understand what your character is feeling. Share an experience when you need for people to empathize with what your character is feeling.

 

New Languages from the Universal)

Of course none of those examples from Up work if people are not first moved by the opening montage. If viewers come away feeling annoyed at Carl and Ellie’s relationship then they really won’t care about Carl’s sadness or sense of betrayal. How is it, then, that the filmmakers managed to get the opening montage to work so well?

For this I’ll go back to my problem as a teaching assistant back in University. Rather than diving straight into the new material, I ought to have first established something common and familiar, something that we all understood equally. That would have put us all on the same page, and on that shared analogy we could have incrementally added all of the new material.

The reason that that opening sequence in Up works so well is because it utilizes universal experiences that almost everyone can relate to. It introduces us to Carl as someone that feels awkward and shy, sensations we’ve all experienced at some point or another. It shows the newly married couple doing all the sorts of mundane household chores, ones that each of us do in our own homes. It explores their desire of wanting great adventure, something that is common to all of humanity. It turns somber when the two learn they cannot have any children, one of the most basic fears in all potential parents. It uses music that swings from bright and playful to slow and somber. All of these things are universally relatable, and so they build that common foundation between character and viewer. All the unique aspects of their relationship that follows extends from common places we all have been.

 

Not Everyone Will Relate)

But obviously when I say these experiences are “universally relatable,” what I really mean is “mostly universally relatable.” In my previous story post, I wanted to establish a tone that was deep, thoughtful, and introspective. I decided to open on a beach with the rolling waves gliding against the coast. I chose this because this setting generally impresses us with themes of largeness, timelessness, and purposefulness. That makes sense, seeing as waves are big, constant, and follow deliberate motions.

But now suppose there is a reader who primarily associates beaches with their partying years in college. Or they might have suffered some tragedy during a boating accident. For these readers my referencing a coast may end up throwing them far from the intended atmosphere. But then no location is ever going to be 100% effective, is it?

I’m sure there were those that watched the opening montage of Up and did not come away with the intended experience either. One such audience might be the very young who have not yet experienced the full richness of life, or those who just barely lost a spouse and are still so lost in the bitterness that they cannot taste the sweet. The fact is these miscommunications are unavoidable, and the idea is only to minimize them as much as possible.

 

In general you can achieve better communication with your readers by first using universal concepts to establish a common ground with them. While doing so, allow them to share meaningful experiences alongside of the main characters so that they can relate to their perspectives and understand their later actions. Finally use those moments of connection deliberately, so that you can steer the reader into taking the sides you want them to have.

In my next post I’d like to explore this idea of language within the context of a story itself. I’ll present a main character and two companions for him. One is familiar and seems to speak the same language, another is alien and does not share of his vocabulary. How he communicates with both of these characters will transform through the experiences they share. As such those communications will be stripped of the periphery and pleasantries of idle conversation, and come to be based upon core needs and feelings. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of this exercise.