The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is all about finding the happy medium. From porridge that is too hot, too cold, and just right to beds that are too hard, too soft, and just right, Goldilocks is on a mission to find the happy medium.
Which is ironic, because while she may not be too reclusive of a neighbor she certainly is too invasive! Throughout the story she fails to find that “just right” middle ground of being sociable but still respecting privacy.
Writing a story is often a balancing act between too much and too little as well. To have a well-rounded story one must ever be looking for that “just right” between two extremes.
The first story I ever wrote was for a school assignment. I was supposed to come up with my own idea of what happened to Henry Hudson after his crew mutinied against him.
In case you’re not familiar, Henry Hudson was an English explorer born around 1565. He, like so many other explorers of the time, was obsessed with the idea of discovering a naval route to connect the western world to the eastern. Like Columbus, Hudson took multiple expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean, searching for some body of water that would press through the American continents and into the Pacific.
For the last of these expeditions he decided to explore the perimeter of a massive bay in Eastern Canada, now called Hudson Bay (named after this same explorer). Though he scoured its edges for a passage to the other side of the continent, he never found it. Even worse, he spent so long looking for it that the winter months came and froze the water over, trapping his boat and causing his men to starve. One by one, the crew began to die.
Henry Hudson had been intoo much. Too little a sense of adventure and one would never discover anything, but too much and you consign your crew to a watery grave. Eventually the men had had enough and they sent Hudson and those loyal to him adrift in a small, open boat. Then the rest of the crew returned to England and reported their mutiny. Several search parties were sent to find Hudson, but not a one of them ever succeeded. To this day we do not know what became of him.
Which, of course, is where my school-assignment story came in. The point of the homework was to be creative and fun, our stories did not have to actually be plausible. My mind rushed with ideas until at last I settled on a story of Hudson and his men rowing to a nearby island, surviving for a time off of the wild, encountering a civilization of cannibals, and ultimately destroying one another by a tragic descent into madness.
I set down to the computer and wrote the entire thing out. This entire epic saga took me…four pages.
It was pitiful and I knew it. But I was young, inexperienced, and I really couldn’t fathom any way to stretch it out any longer. I didn’t know how to let a scene breathe, how to develop a character over time. All I knew to do was state one set of events after another, writing a story that was little more than a summary of a larger novel.
But in spite of the disappointing performance something had woken up inside of me. I realized that I had stories I wanted to tell and I was going to keep trying at it. Bit-by-bit I learned how to dress up my scenes with dialogue and prose. Several stories later I had a piece about a superhero that weighed in at 20 pages. My next story, a medieval fantasy, was double that. I then wrote a series in five parts, each of which came in around 40-60 pages for a combined total of 200-300. At this point my parents informed me I was now using too much printer ink so my next fantasy piece was a handwritten novel of 300 pages.
When I got to the end of that story I realized that while I had increased a great deal in volume, I had only marginally improved in quality. I cringed every time I looked back over the works I had written, scribbling out mistakes and writing above the line in miniscule pen like a school teacher. I realized that I, too, need to draft and iterate, just like everybody else.
And so I started a second draft of that handwritten novel…but I never got through it. My problem was not that I had too little ambition or desire, if anything it was too much. I couldn’t sit still on a single project for too long, not when I wanted to write so many other things. Too many ideas, too little time, no happy medium anywhere to be found.
It wasn’t until a few years after college that I decided to give storytelling another try. Interestingly enough, it was another school assignment that helped bring me back. In the opening lecture of an ethics class we were told that we must launch a blog and post on it every week our thoughts about the issues we discussed through the semester. These weren’t stories that I was writing, but I started to see the benefit of short, public posts. They were manageable, allowed the author to cover a plethora of different subjects, and could easily be adapted to telling stories.
To satisfy my continued appetite for story I decided to launch this blog three years ago. I determined that I would write each piece as fully-bodied as if they had been excised from a fuller novel, but they would be only chapters and introductions, a hint of something bigger, and then on to the next thing.
This approach allowed me to be both voracious and measured at the same time, putting time into detailed scenes, yet getting to try my hand at every genre. And this approach has greatly helped me to turn writing into a constant pastime.
Yet lately I have found myself lingering too long on my “short stories,” not only carrying them past what I’d intended, but also too long for their own good. Every creator needs an editor (whether internal or external) to focus the ideas into their most ideal form, to trim off the excess and leave the vibrant core.
I’m going to try and exercise that internal editor of mine with my next story. I intend for it a very simple, very straightforward drama between two young friends. It’s a story that should be bite-sized, at the very most two posts long, and I intend to keep it that way. I’ll go ahead and flesh out each scene, but the total number of scenes should be kept to a bare minimum. Come back on Thursday as I try to walk the line between too much and too little, ever in search of that “just right” medium.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy film opens with a shot of alien worlds. We descend upon one of these to a rocky wasteland, upon which a single spaceship lands. A lone spaceman emerges wearing a high-tech suit and a mask with glowing, red eyes. He pulls out a fancy scanner, which reveals that the rocky ruins around him were actually once a great city, and he follows a signal to an old, decrepit building, now more nature than artificial construct. With a push of a button his helmet disassembles itself, he puts on a pair of headphones, and presses play on a walkman. Come and Get Your Love by Redbone blares as he dances his way through the ruins.
It is a surreal moment. The starkly foreign setting has been pervaded by a song from our real-life recent history. Obviously the song doesn’t belong in that place. The movie knows this, yet it puts it there even so.
And this is a common reoccurrence in the film, too. We see all manner of strange worlds, species, and technology, and none of it has anything to do with real life as we know it. Yet all throughout we continue hearing the real-world music that Peter Quill keeps on his mixtape. Not only that, but he continually makes references to real pop culture, such as the film Footloose starring Kevin Bacon.
But as strangely out-of-place as all these references are…they actually work. They don’t break the suspension of disbelief, they don’t shatter the fourth wall, they don’t turn the drama into a parody, and they don’t make the fantastic world feel mundane. Rather the two flavors combine in a way that complement one another.
This works for two reasons. On the one hand, those of us that were born too late to experience the real-world media firsthand find the tunes to be familiar, yet also otherworldly. The past can be like a fiction to us, a story we hear of, but which is distinctly different from all of our first-hand experiences.
And for those of us who were born early enough to experience the release of that media directly, nostalgia is an experience not unlike visiting another world. A favorite song transcends its true-life story. To us it isn’t a temporary collaboration of individuals fulfilling a contractual obligation for a record deal, it is an otherworldly piece of magic that dropped from the heavens to make a spark inside of us. Indeed it seems to come from a place not unlike the magical world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It belongs there more than it does in reality.
It was this same reasoning that led me to include real-world media references in my latest story: The Time Travel Situation. My characters are in a real-life setting but they are also playing a game of pretend. I describe them as they see themselves: special government agents racing through time to stop temporal bandits! Yet as they go through this world of fantasy I have them call out real-life media that my readers might be personally familiar with. I don’t think these real-world references will feel disjointed to the reader, though, because I specifically chose media that was fantastic: the Journeyman Project games and Star Trek. Those works fit very well with my fiction, they seem as if they could easily be a part of it, and so it doesn’t break the story’s immersion to make mention of them.
So it is possible for fantasy stories to make reference of otherworldly media in a way that feels integrated and coherent. But what about a more dramatic or grounded piece?
Tom Hanks’s directorial debut That Thing You Do! cleverly recreates 1960s music culture without ever using any actual artists, labels, or songs. Everything in it is a complete fabrication, yet it all feels very real and authentic. Given that this film was trying to capture the spirit of the era without being a biopic of any actual musical group this was an excellent line to walk. If this film had interspersed its portrayal of a fictional band with scenes of real-life performers, such as The Beatles, then it would have felt disjointed. Contrast this with Forrest Gump, which is able to tell fictional stories about real-life characters like President Lyndon B Johnson and John Lenin because it is a less grounded piece, full of hyperbole and fantasy in its pseudo-real setting.
However there does still remain a way for a grounded piece of fiction to make reference to real world material. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel of a teenage boy caught in the awkward phase between youth and adulthood. He is not a fictional character, but his experiences are extremely relatable and true-to-life. The title of the film comes from when he hears the real-world song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye and misunderstands its lyrics. In reality this is a bawdy folk song, but the lyrics cause him to imagine children playing in a field, being saved from falling off the cliff by a Catcher who protects them.
It is a wonderful expression of a young man who is confused, and misinterpreting his world in fanciful, imaginative ways. But it wouldn’t work very well if this was an unknown song that the reader didn’t know the real meaning of. The author, J. D. Salinger, was using the real-world song as a shorthand to quickly communicate a complex idea to his readers.
This was my logic when I wrote Phisherman, in which I made reference to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris from the film The Way of the Dragon. That story of mine was also heavily grounded in reality while still being a fictional tale. Towards the end of it I wanted to show a memory of the main character with his father. The two of them would discuss the nature of heroes and villains in stories, and they would relate those archetypes to themselves. Now if I had made up a fictional film with fictional actors for them to reference, then the audience wouldn’t have properly understood what they were talking about. And if I had tried to explain the fictional film and characters in great detail it would have broken the flow of the story. Thus I elected to make a singular reference to real-world media. Something that would immediately get my main character, his father, and the audience all on the same page. It was a meant to be a tasteful intersection of fact and fiction that provided just enough context for a shared understanding.
As I already said, I have given fantasy-media references in my new story, The Time Travel Situation, and with my next chapter I would like to try for the more grounded kind. I will try to give a reference that utilizes a shared understanding between my characters and the audience. Come back on Thursday to see how I incorporate it.
There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Cho Chang are at a café in the wizarding town of Hogsmeade. Harry, of course, has a crush on Cho and is hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. As they sit together at the table he starts to tell himself that he should reach out and hold her hand.
A few more minutes passed in total silence, Harry drinking his coffee so fast that he would soon need a fresh cup....
Cho's hand was lying on the table beside her coffee, and Harry was feeling a mounting pressure to take hold of it. Just do it, he told himself, as a fount of mingled panic and excitement surged up inside his chest. Just reach out and grab it. . . Amazing how much more difficult it was to extend his arm twelve inches and touch her hand than to snatch a speeding Snitch from midair...
But just as he moved his hand forward, Cho took hers off the table.
Seeing or reading about a character’s awkward discomfort often gets a visceral reaction from the audience. Seeing smiling faces has a chance to make you feel happy and frowns could possibly make you sad, but watching someone squirm in a socially painful situation seems guaranteed to turn your own insides as well.
This is because most of us who read about Harry’s internal struggle are immediately brought back to similar moments in our own life. All of us who have dated can share experiences of such times where we felt paralyzed between the excitement of potential success and the horror of potential rejection. Whether to hold a hand, or put an arm around the shoulders, or to lean in for a kiss, we’ve all been there, and this evocative scene immediately taps into those personal emotions.
Of course there are other stories that go as far away from these relatable moments of ordinary life as possible. They don’t dwell on typical social dramas, they project amazing power fantasies instead!
Consider the scene near the end of the first Matrix film where Neo and Trinity storm the building that Morpheus is being held captive in. Clad in black leather, hair slicked back, shades permanently affixed to their faces they stride past the security checkpoint like they own the place.
A team of heavily armored guards rush out to meet them with shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. Guns are whipped out, techno music kicks into high gear, and we are treated to a scene of exorbitant action! Neo and Trinity are flipping off of walls, rubble and smoke fills the air, baddies drop like dominos. This is not a duel between evenly matched forces, it is a scene of total domination!
The whole thing is entirely over-the-top and absolutely nothing like real life. Of course no one could relate to a scene like this!
Except that yeah, I totally did.
I mean, no, never in my life have I ever been a situation remotely like this, but long before I saw this scene I had already been rehearsing moments just like it in my head. And I’m far from the only one.
This scene landed so powerfully with audiences because it tapped into the power fantasies that each of us hold in our private moments. We love to imagine a problem that calls for a new hero to enter, us. We arrive on one the scene looking the very epitome of cool, and then cut the baddies down left and right with our ridiculously overpowered arsenal.
The scene in The Matrix might ring entirely false in the “real world,” but it is very, very true in the imagined one. Some scenes can be relatable in how they capture the nuances of ordinary life, and some in how they capture the nuances of deepest desire.
Somewhere In Between)
The painfully awkward and the power fantasy. Must a story choose one style of relatability over the other? Is it possible to be both grounded and fantastic?
The 2011 film Moneyball is a sports film that feels far more true-to-life than most other sports films. It is about the business of baseball, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of managers trying to synergize the perfect roster. It is about budgets and algorithms.
Thus it is a very grounded take on the sport and it is filled with all manner of down-to-earth, understated, totally relatable scenes. Take for example when the film develops the relationship between the main character and his daughter. They are both in a guitar store and he is trying to coax her to play a little song for him. She’s nervous because they’re in public, but with a little encouragement she recites a few simple lines from a song.
It’s one of very few scenes in the entire film that the main character shows strong emotion, nearly brought to tears at the delight of seeing his daughter just doing what she loves. It’s a moment both small and large, both mundane and fantastic.
Furthermore, the entire film is all about that main character trying to make something of substance by very simple, deliberate means. Each scene by itself seems of little consequence, advancing goals by only the tiniest of margins, immediately relatable to the slow march we perceive in our own lives. But by the end of the film something truly special comes to fruition, immediately relatable to the hope we each have that our slow and steady march is leading to somewhere grand. Both the mundanity of real life and the fantasy of our deepest desires are fully represented.
In my current story I have been trying to take the opposite approach to Moneyball. Rather than adding mundane moments until they become a fantasy, I have begun with a fantasy setting tried to fill it with mundane moments.
I showed this last time where the two main character discussed conspiracies while chopping firewood and where the main character’s moment of boldness was just to grab a paper without being seen by another. Important things are happening, but they’re intentionally being couched in basic moments of life.
Of course as things continue the fantastic will win out, but hopefully even then it will be in a way that remains relatable to our private fantasies. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of The Favored Son to see how I pursue that goal.
Tharol forced himself to turn from the elders, and focused instead on Jolu. Jolu was only recently lost after all, perhaps there was a way to bring him back. Tharol bounded over to the youth, and as he did so he noticed Inol following him from a step behind, Shraying-Staff elongating into a pointed spear.
“No!” Tharol cried. “Give me a chance to talk to him!”
There wasn’t any time to argue, so instead Tharol slowed his step, grabbed Inol’s shoulder, and spun him hard. Inol’s own momentum made him lose balance and he went flying to the ground, cursing as he slammed into the stone floor.
Tharol pounded on ahead and leaped through the air to meet Jolu. He turned his Shraying-Staff arm into an extraordinarily large arm and hand, using its considerable strength to grab the boy’s wrist and restrain it. Tharol used his other hand to grip Jolu’s other wrist and tried to force the youth to look him in the eyes.
“Jolu, look at me!” he shouted, but Jolu’s eyes were rolled backwards. “See me, Jolu! See, it’s Tharol!”
Jolu’s arms flailed with a force that caught Tharol entirely by surprise, and the boy wrenched himself free of Tharol’s grasp. Jolu clapped his hands together, attempting to crush Tharol’s head in between. Tharol only barely managed to raise his Shraying Staff arm horizontally, blocking each hand.
“Jolu, please! You’re in there aren’t you? Come back!”
Jolu’s eyes flickered. For a moment his irises started to tease back towards their proper position. “No,” he strained out with an unnatural voice, as if he spoke through a heavy shroud. “I won’t. The fear.”
In that moment of hesitation Inol attacked. All Tharol saw of it was the Shraying Staff come thrusting in from above his shoulder, filling his vision. Jolu’s hands went limp and he fell backwards.
“You’re a traitor!” Inol shouted.
“Just because I have a different idea–” Tharol began, but Inol wasn’t in the mood for words. His Shraying Staff was still pierced through Jolu, but he had a standard sword in his other hand, which he was already thrusting at Tharol’s chest. Tharol tried to block it, but he was too late, and only deflected the blade so that it pierced his shoulder instead of his heart.
“What are you doing?” Tharol roared.
Tharol was confused by that, but then he felt a pair of eyes on him. He looked to the side and saw Reis watching the two of them intently.
Inol pulled back his blade and Tharol’s arm fell limply to his side. He felt the blood running down his shoulder, the throbbing pain emanating from his wound. He tried to raise his other arm, the one fused with the Shraying Staff, but Inol stepped on it, pinning it to the floor. Inol swung his own blade forward, a horizontal swing to pass right through the center of Tharol.
But then, just before contact, Inol exclaimed in shock. His Shraying Staff arm appeared to be melting into molten steel. One glob after another fell sideways through the air, flowing across the hall and over to the elders attacking the youth. When Master Y’Mish had let Inol cut him, he had claimed the weapon with his blood. But apparently he had not claimed it for himself. Having become fused with all of the elders he had been able to claim it for the mass. It fell into the hand of Master Zhaol, then flickered and appeared in the hand of Master Finei. Quickly it cycled through possession of them all, and evidently they could transmit it between them all. The youth’s advantage in weaponry had been negated.
Rather than watch the horrors that followed, Tharol turned to the matter closer at hand. He reformed his Shraying Staff arm, drawing it quickly inwards and pulling it out from beneath Inol’s foot. The youth lost his balance and stumbled forward, right into the blade that Tharol immediately formedhis Shraying Staff into. Inol was pierced straight through the heart.
“You were a fool,” Tharol scoffed, then pulled his blade loose, letting Inol’s body drop to the earth.
He turned to the battle between the youth and the elders. It was a massacre. The elders moved in a strange and erratic fashion, splitting into their individual forms, and retreating into a central mass, flickering their Shraying Staff sword in and out of existence in time to block, parry, and thrust. Already four of the youth lay dead, and now their precious weapons were being claimed by the elders. Three more youth were on the ground bleeding out. The remaining six were all huddling back om a corner, forming their Shraying Staffs into a shield wall, not even trying to fight anymore. All of the elders were moving in on that group, closing from the kill.
Which meant…none of them were advancing for Tharol. He was alone, and he could get out of that place if he wanted. For a moment he considered doing it. What was the point of pursuing a lost cause? Even if he got the youth out of their corner the elders would keep on chasing them down.
Maybe he could save one though.
Gritting his teeth Tharol lifted his arm and charged forward. His damaged arm protested every movement, sent sharp flashes of pain through his side with every step. He fought that down, though, and launched himself high into the air.
A force carried him up. A force far greater than he had kicked off of the stone pathway with. He lifted fourteen feet into the air, then rolled himself into a spin. He extended his Shraying Staff out as a long pole. It whipped through the air, unhindered until it collided with Master Etla, the forefront elder. With a sickening crack Master Etla was thrown back into her compatriots, tumbling them all to the ground.
“Come on!” Tharol roared to the youth who were peeking out at him from behind their shield wall. “To the centrifuge!”
“Wait, no, we can kill them if we’re quick enough!” Reis emerged from the barricade first and gestured to the fallen elders. His voice lacked its usual authority though. It sounded more like a weak idea than an order.
“Back to the centrifuge,” Tharol repeated firmly. “I won’t protect anyone who stays to die.”
In a moment Reis’s face steeled. There was no more uncertainty in his demeanor now. For in spite of any common sense, he could not swallow a challenge to his leadership. He stepped towards the fallen elders, waving his Shraying Staff sword overhead. “I AM YOUR LEADER!” He roared back at the youth. “YOU HAVE ALL MADE A PLEDGE TO ME! I ORDER YOU TO–“
But no one listened. Without a moment’s hesitation all the others lowered their shields and dashed down the hall for refuge.
“I DENY YOU!” Reis shrieked, and held his hand aloft. The bonds of the pledge took hold. The youth could not resist an explicit rejection from their leader. So long as he was their leader, he could deny them their free will. All they could do now was either submit to his order, or remain frozen in place.
There was a rustling from behind. Master Etla would not be returning to her feet again, but all the other elders were. Seemingly unfazed by being so forcefully thrown to the ground, they marched forward in a tight battle formation. They advanced to the youth that was nearest to them. Which, of course, was Reis.
“Fight with me!” The tinge of panic returned to Reis’s voice now. He hurriedly glanced over his shoulder at the approaching elders, then back to the other youth still frozen in defiance.
The first of the elders reached Reis. The boy swung his weapon wide and she easily deflected it, then pinned it to the ground.
“Obey me!” Reis panted.
Three swords pierced him at once. He fell to the earth and Tharol and the others felt their bonds loosen. They were free to run now, and run they must, for Reis’s parting gift had been to take away any head-start they might have had.
Everyone moved at once! The youth rushed towards the end of the hall, the elders sprang after them, and Tharol leaped in between. He spun his Shraying Staff in a wide circle, forcing the elders to deal with him first, covering for the others’ retreat.
The two nearest elders caught Tharol’s weapon between their own, and twisted their blades in unison so that he was sent sprawling through the air. His back slammed into a wall, and the two elders advanced on him as the others continued the chase. They were Masters Oni and Strawl.
Tharol’s wounded arm should have been in agony from the blow. But he didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t feel anything at all. Indeed he felt like his mind was detached from his body, directing it from a place of calm removal. He flung himself forward, swung his blade out. He did not try to strike either of the two elders, rather he intentionally crossed his sword with theirs, until they were all locked together. He sent a ripple down his Shraying Staff and the individual sections began tumbling outward, interlocking with those belonging to the two elders. Each of them tried to pull their weapon free, but they were tangled together! Tharol focused once more, and retracted all the sections of his Shraying Staff, leaving the still-fused weapons of the other two.
It only took Oni and Strawl a moment to follow his example, retract their weapons, and free themselves, but by then Tharol had already dashed away, chasing after the rest of his comrades. He thundered down one hallway after another, pushing himself faster and faster. He paused only for a moment as he came across the body of one of his friends. It was Golu. It was immediately apparent that there wasn’t anything he could for him, though, the youth was already long dead, so Tharol continued on his way.
Tharol clenched his teeth and sprang back into the air. He needed to move faster. He needed to catch up to the others. He flung his Shraying Staff out as a hyper-elongated arm with a vise-like claw at the end. He seized upon a distant column, flexed his arm, and flung himself powerfully through the air.
A wall came rushing up to meet him, and he barely managed to throw his mechanical arm forward in time to catch the wall’s upper ridge and flip himself over the obstacle. As quickly as possible he righted himself, then thrust out to vault off a stone gargoyle.
And so he continued, grasping and flinging, weaving his way through the air at breakneck speed. Any mistake and he would slam into a wall or a roof. Any slip and he would break all his limbs or worse. Any misjudgment and he wouldn’t be there to save his friends.
Tharol flipped onto an adjacent hallway and came upon two elders locked in battle with another of the youth: Chaol.
Tharol gave a cry and let himself plummet towards the ground. His Shraying Staff arm splayed out like a massive net, wrapping the two elders at once. They were Masters Zhaol and Finei, and they were ready for him this time. As soon as his net touched them they resisted the bind. In unison they lurched Tharol off of his feet and slammed him into the ground. He tried to regain his footing, but their own Shraying Staffs shot forth like vines, pinning him to the wall.
“Run!” he gasped to Chaol. Then he thrust his Shraying Staff forward as a long spear towards the two elders. Again, they were ready for it. Master Zhaol released Tharol’s body and enmeshed Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own, just the same as how Tharol had done to Oni and Strawl. Tharol couldn’t help but suspect that Zhaol knew about that maneuver by having shared with Oni and Strawl’s minds when it has happened.
Master Finei still held Tharol’s body firm with her Shraying Staff, but also drew a sword from her side with her other hand and ran Chaol through, killing the youth. Then she turned to Tharol and advanced for the kill.
Tharol regarded the cold steel of the sword…standard like the one Inol had carried.
With a cry Tharol thrust out his wounded arm. Pain washed over him, but he closed his eyes and focused with all his might. There came the sound of bubbling, molten steel, and then he felt Inol’s sword forming in the hand of his his wounded arm, claimed by his blood when Inol had stabbed him in the shoulder.
Tharol opened his eyes in time to see Master Finei slump backwards, dead. Master Zhaol blinked in surprise, and for a moment Tharol thought he looked like his old, regular self.
“Master Zhaol, let me go!” he pleaded. He tried to retract his Shraying Staff, but Master Zhaol was too quick, locking onto the sections of Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own and pulling them back out.
“No,” Master Zhaol stated flatly, staring blankly off into the distance. “You have defied us. You are all to die.”
Tharol could hear the sound of other elders approaching them, Oni and Strawl pursuing from behind, no doubt.
“Please, Master. Remember what you stood for. What you believed in. Why are you letting the Invasion take you?”
Zhaol turned his eyes onto the youth, and again Tharol felt that he was seeing the remnants of the teacher he had known.
“There is no point in resisting,” Zhaol said sadly. “You haven’t seen it Tharol. Even now, through us, you haven’t really seen it. There is only joining or perishing.”
Oni and Strawl, rounded the corner, saw Master Zhaol and Tharol, and began to approach them.
“Then perish with us!” Tharol cried. “We might save one if we tried. If we die, just for that, it’s already worth it. You know it is.”
“But–but–” Zhaol’s eyes fluttered, snapping rapidly between a blank stare and a wide-eyed mania. “But I’m afraid.”
“So am I. I’ll be afraid with you.”
A look of relief washed over Zhaol, his whole body quavered, and then he became very calm. He looked sad, but sure.
“Five of us,” Oni and Strawl recited in unison. They stepped away from each other, now advancing on Zhaol in a pincer formation. Zhaol turned to face them.
“Thank you, Tharol,” he said over his shoulder. “I can handle this now. You run!”
“We should stay together,” Tharol said. “If we were work together we can save one.”
On Monday I wrote about stories that are detached from any normalcy that we experience in the natural world, yet which we still accept as real so long as it remains consistent to its own rules.
Admittedly, this is one area that I think my current story is lacking. I did not begin it with a clear understanding of its mechanics or systems. I just sort of made it up as I went, and the result is that certain elements are inconsistent throughout.
Take for example the elders after they have been taken over by the invasion. In their initial attack (in the amphitheater) they seemed basically human. Later they were zombie-like characters in a trance, who fused together to form one, featureless void. And in the first version of this latest section I had them basically back to human.
Fortunately I realized that the second interpretation, the entranced and hyper-connected communion, was the most interesting, and should be the one I used consistently.
Thus I went back over this nighttime battle and rewrote the elders to exhibit more of that fusing-together/coming-apart behavior. Even so, I do feel like the first chapters of this story could be updated to be in better synergy with where I went in these later ones. If I were to ever expand this story, I would be sure to make that change. And in this way, by making my story more consistently strange, I would actually make it more true to itself, and thereby easier to believe in.
Next Thursday I will be posting the next section of The Favored Son, and it will be the last entry for it. After that it will be time to move on to another tale and another series. But before we get to that, I’d like to recap what my intentions were for this story, and evaluate how I have done at executing them. Come back on Monday to hear about that.
I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.
He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.
But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?
Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?
They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.
Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.
And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.
But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.
And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.
And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.
And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!
As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.
Keep Your Story Consistent)
Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.
And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.
A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.
After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.
I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.
Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.
If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.
I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.
We numbered 37 in all. 36 Treksmen, plus our new foreman, a man we had never met called Boosh Fyyan. To this day I cannot tell you the first thing about him. Not what he looked like, not what he sounded like, I’m not sure why I even remember his name. I cannot recall any of his details, of course, because I was unconscious through the first part of our expedition. Unconscious was the only reasonable way to keep our wits on a journey as black as this, and so every one of us Treksmen gave ourselves up to the automation of our work.
As is always the case when you pledge your heart by a solemn oath, you become somewhat machine like by the process. Given the nature of your surrender, you do not have to consciously think about the work that you do now, you can simply relax the mind and your body will do the functions on its own, driven by the Job’s mind until the last labor is fulfilled.
Normally we have a good deal of fun with this autonomy, letting the body go on its own, while we exert all our mental energy to coming up with jokes and songs. Sometimes we play tricks on one another, leaving a tack upright on a handhold and seeing if the other Treksman was alert enough to stop the automation from making him grab it.
But there were no jokes and no fun for this journey. This time we let our conscious minds shut off entirely. Better to ignore the bad omens and the grim nature of our labor, and sink into a blissful stupor instead.
Indeed, I was unconscious for weeks at a time, only being roused when a word or a sound would trigger something in my mind, such as when a mother in a village we visited called to her son with the same name as my own. It made me sad to think that once I had been so carefree as that little boy, and now I walked with a curse about my neck.
It was, as I say, a bitter thought, and I immediately rolled my eyes back and gave my mind again to its hibernation. I closed out the world so tightly that I could not be roused again, not even by my companion’s cries, until a full two of them had already been killed by the Scrayer.
“TO ME! TO ME!” A voice was shouting, pulling my groggy eyes back into focus. It took me a moment to make sense of what lay before me, so unexpected the scene of destruction was. Three of our wagons were on fire and another one had been hewn to pieces. The two companions that usually marched nearest to me lay dead not eight feet ahead of where I stood. They were collapsed to the ground in such a peaceful and carefree manner that I am sure they had been slain while still unconscious. Another Treksman to my left was just coming out of his stupor, having been awakened by the fact that his clothes were catching flame from the burning wagons. He screamed in shock and tried to beat the embers down.
But I ignored him, for all my attention was wrapped up in the solitary figure that walked fifteen feet ahead of me, the obvious cause of all the chaos. It was the largest man I’ve ever seen. He stood nearly a full eight feet tall, bursting with muscle, and, completely covered in a black, voluminous cloak. As I have said, he was a Scrayer, and the tell-tale weapon of that order was entwined up along his arm.
Of course, for a Scrayer to utilize his Scrayth requires that he possess immense strength, and this man most certainly did. For no sooner did my eyes settle upon him than he seized the burning Treksman with his weaponized hand and thrust that man into the air, flinging him with such force that the Treksman instantly dissipated into a fine, black powder.
The Scrayer looked at me now and I was struck by the realization that there were no more Treksmen between he and I! I flung myself backwards, turned upon the ground, and clawed around the corner of my wagon for any cover I might find. At every moment I expected to feel his great fingers gripping me and piercing into my side…but the death-grip did not come.
For right at that moment Boosh Fyyan (I now recall that the man wore a bright red turban) came charging forward, a light-sickle burning brightly in his hand. “TO ME!” he shouted once more, still trying to rouse us Treksmen from our stupor, then thrust his weapon at the towering foe.
The Scrayer slapped the weapon to the side with his unarmed hand, then grabbed Boosh around the throat with his other, and made to thrust him also out into dust. But Boosh clawed desperately at the foe’s arm, and so was not thrown out as firmly as the Scrayer had intended. For a moment Boosh stood suspended in the air, his features grainy and his body stretched out into long strands that flared out at the ends. He was suspended in that limbo for only a moment, but then his eyes flashed and he came rushing back into a fully corporeal form He descended back down, arm thrusting, light-sickle plunging, piercing into the chest of the Scrayer. He was like an angel descending from above to slay the dragon.
“Nnnarrgh!” the giant bellowed, and in a rage he grabbed Boosh again (I now recall that Boosh had deep, amber eyes), and flung him so savagely that the man was turned to powder before the brute had even let him go. The Scrayer turned, as if he would make towards me once more, but then his face contorted in pain and a few tendrils of blue smoke began to emanate from the wound where Boosh had skewered him with the light-sickle.
The Scrayer clenched his teeth and tried to grit his way forward, but immediately he halted again as the tendrils of blue smoke pouring from his heart started to solidify and take form. It was a vague shape in three parts. Two were long and thin, and the third in the middle was bulky and short…like a head and shoulders between two arms. The whole thing was flailing and writhing, twisting itself further and further out of the Scrayer’s chest, inch-by-inch. The part that seemed like a head began to tremble rapidly, and two lines stretched apart in it, like the opening of a mouth strained against a shroud. A haunting shriek sounded out, and rang within our hearts.
“No!” The Scrayer bellowed, grabbing at the blue form and trying to tear it into pieces. But it was still only half-physical, and whatever puffs he managed to pull free simply flowed back into the main body immediately after.
In awe I slowly stepped forward. It was a very foolish thing to do, I suppose, but I could not help but bear witness to such a horror as this. My foot kicked a pebble and the Scrayer’s terrified eyes rounded back on me.
“Please! Help me!” he cried. His fingers clawing at his chest, as if desiring to rip his very heart out. “Please! Yes, I meant you harm, but only for your own good.”
Now the blue, arm-like streams thrust into the Scrayer’s dark beard, and the ends bended backwards, like two hands clenching into fists. With that grip the blue form forcibly pulled itself still farther out of its host’s chest.
“Arrrgh!” the Scrayer screamed. His legs kicked wildly and he fell onto his back.
“I’ll finish him!” Vallon, my fellow Treksman, said at my elbow as he drew a sword from his side.
“I–I am already dead” the Scrayer gasped out, barely able to speak at all. The blue form had raised itself up towards the sky, clawing at empty air as its lower body now emerged. “P-p-please. Break your oaths….” the Scrayer winced. “Break them!” His eyes fluttered and lost focus, but by sheer force of will he brought himself back from the brink and stared at us with fervent intent. “I know–I know. You’ll die. But–” His whole body shook. “But–” The blue form’s feet were a foot above the Scrayer’s chest now, connected to that body only by a single thread. The Scrayer clutched at life one last time, his final words came out as naught but a sigh. “But there are worse things.”
Then the thread snapped and the great giant instantly relaxed into his death. The blue form turned round, lifted its arms heavenward, and flew off into the clouds.
It was gone.
Things were worse now. We were down to thirty-four Treksmen, and no foreman among us. Because all of us had been unconscious, not a one of us knew where we even were or what our next destination was. We had no choice but to let the automation do the work, moving our bodies further down the trail, minus the carts that had been destroyed.
We did not sink back into our unconscious stupor this time. Our bodies were automated, but our eyes and our ears we kept alert at all times, watching for any other assailant that might come our way.
We spoke only a little of the ordeal that had just passed. It was, of course, a very remarkable thing that a Scrayer would have anything to do with us at all. Such a unit properly belongs among a royal guard, not harassing lowly caravans. This only lent all the more weight to his ominous plea: that we forsake our contract, suffer the same death as Yalli as our penalty, and leave our wares undelivered. Clearly he had felt it a matter of great importance to have debased himself to the murder of us all. He must have known that we would never sacrifice ourselves for a cause we did not understand.
Which, of course, we did not and would not. The sense of anxiousness in us grew more profound, but it was not nearly enough for us to surrender our own lives. Not only because we did not understand what good would come from such a sacrifice, but also because we felt that we were destined to do what we had been hired to do. If it was a sin that lay before us, we must perform it even so. If we were unknowingly bringing about the very end of the world (which, as it turned out, we were), yet it had to be done.
We were commissioned to darkness, and it did not matter whether we approved of it or not.
Six days later and our feet guided us into our next destination. After entering the city we asked around and learned that we had come to Bowria. A quick consultation with the foreman’s maps and we understood that we were much more than halfway through our journey already. There only remained three stops, and last of all the delivery to Graymore Coventry. We would be there in about four week’s time.
This news pierced our hearts like an icy dagger. We were so close to our wretched end, that each step further felt like a personal betrayal of all that was holy. We were taken by a deeper melancholy still, totally unready to face the fruit of darkness so soon. All of us wished to escape back to the blissful ignorance of the automation, but that would leave us helpless to whatever bandits or disasters may yet be waiting along our way.
Thus we decided to take it in turns. A fourth of us would keep watch while the rest remained comatose. A week of wakefulness and three of sleep for us all. We drew lots and it was my unhappy chance to be in the first watch.
What a foolish arrangement this seemed to be now, walking with only seven other alert companions, watching the mass of our companions shuffling forward listlessly like the immortal dead. We were alone to our fears, and it seemed to us that mischief was bound to spring out from every rock and shadow. We did not speak to one another, for our hearts were filled with dread, and it would spill out in a torrent if we opened our lips.
So we pressed on silently, teeth clenched, nerves firing, a silent panic in every footstep. Our heads hung down, our eyes stared into the earth, and at times we would fain bury ourselves in it and have the misery over with. It would have seemed a blessing if some highway robbers would come and give us the relief of a cut throat.
But though we might have prayed for such a relief with one half of our heart, the other stubbornly refused to let go of its need for life. We would go on, because even a cursed life is still the greatest of blessings.
Thus there were only eight of us who were awake. Only eight when our party came across the witch.
On Monday I discussed a couple ways that a story can balance complexity and scale to avoid introducing plot-holes. I suggested that a story needed to have a world big enough to support its ideas, so that different systems didn’t run into one another and cause inadvertent contradictions.
At the end of my last entry in this story I introduced the idea that these Treksmen were bound by an oath, such that they could not quit their delivery without dying as a result. That mechanic further led to the idea of them being able to function as automatons, performing their labors on a literal auto-pilot. It also became involved with the Scrayer coming and trying to kill them, as he knew their job could only be halted by their dying, either one way or the other. Now that’s as involved as I want this mechanic of oath-binding to be. The more I combine it with other systems, the more chance I have to make a connection that is incompatible.
Most of the new ideas that I introduce are meant to stand alone, entering for only one scene, and then never resurfacing with other connections. An example of this is our Scrayer, whose weapon, creed, and other details will never be seen in the story again. I only had to make his behavior compatible with the behavior of the Treksmen in this one instance, and now will not try to connect him to anything else.
The other technique I described was that of developing a story’s world and systems first. Even before I came up with the arc of our protagonist, one of my very first ideas was that of a massive, armed assailant ravaging a caravan, flinging men into the air where they dissipated into dust. By using this world-building-first approach, I already had suggested to me a plot involving a caravan, and a protagonist who is a member of it. I wrote such things, and now the story flows naturally through the scenes I first envisioned. One can of course overdo this world-building-first approach, and end up with a series of disjointed scenes that don’t really gel together. Hopefully I’m finding the correct balance with this experiment.
Before we continue with the story, though, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the stylistic theme of my past few stories, and how a body of work mirrors the mental state of the author. Come back on Monday to hear about that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the adventures of our Treksman.
This, of course, is my account of the Priests of Oolant and the sacrifices they made to summon the dread eclipse. The final night. The burning horizon. The Black Sun.
Many names. Each trying to express the same idea, yet each only able to give definition to the smallest part of it. I shall attempt to discuss around the matter with my own words, though I too will fail to properly account for what transpired that day. I know as much, and I happily accept that failing, for there is no shame in not being able to explain that which is inexplicable.
I have, of course, read the many partial and second-hand accounts of that day, which to my utter disdain have tried to gloss over the void truth with fanciful allegories and symbolism. These things are an affront and a blaspheme to the true gravity of that moment. You cannot make an image of so unholy a scene, you cannot make a fantasy of that which is most terribly real, and you cannot write a drama around pure, unfeeling destruction.
Rather than try to explain things, we should be content to leave them unknowable. Thus I am not here to satiate your curiosity. If you desire fables look elsewhere. I have come only to help you resolve your mind to the fact that you will never know. How could you? I myself know, yet do not know what that knowing is. It is like a worm lodged in my brain, which churns through the folds of that tissue unceasingly. I cannot see the worm, I cannot hear the worm, I cannot feel the worm…for my brain has uselessly placed all its sensors without itself. All that I am able to perceive the worm by is how it weighs and pressures upon every other cranial activity. It squeezes against the synapses and makes them fire differently, makes them all tainted by the shadow of the Black Sun.
I was there.
I wish for this to be made very clear. This is not another second-hand account. I was present my own self that day. How did I escape then, you wonder? I do not know. Perhaps I did not. So frail has my connection to this world felt ever since, so ignored by my fellow man have I been, that it would not surprise me at all if I am nothing but a specter anymore, a ghost whose record must go unheard by the world. But perhaps if I write it now with all my soul, if I strain myself with all my strength against the shroud, then I will leave an echo that some may bear witness to on the other side. I have heard of such things before. But enough now, I have digressed from my matter.
As I said, I was there.
I was not one of the Priests of Oolant, I frankly had no business with them whatsoever. I was not even raised in the Damocile Region. I called my home Omayo, a small hamlet two levels and fourteen strata beneath groundscape. Though of course not true groundscape. We thought it was, but back in those days we did not know that that which we called the entire world was but only a single arm of the greater Kolv Mass.
In any case, the hamlet of Omayo rested on the fringe of the Peyrock plantation. Like most of the boys that grew up in my small village, when I came of age I sought employment from that plantation. Some of us went to work in the fields, some of us to transport the goods in far-traveling caravans, the greatest of which were many miles long.
It was the caravan work that fell to me, and I made many sojourns with our dried bracken, all through the Eastern quadrant of the groundscape (or what we then thought was groundscape). When we received a special order we would carry it directly down to the specific level-and-strata, otherwise we left our goods with the surface depot, to then be disseminated by great lifts to the masses below.
It was not often that our circuit included the Damocile Region, and absolutely never to the Coventry of Graymore. Of course I was aware of the place and the work performed within its blackened halls, for its fame was common knowledge to us all. But never had I seen the Slab Altar, nor the masses of their artificially inflated population, nor contemplated how one could so freely choose such a fate as the Consigning.
But all this was to change, and I confess I felt a thrill of boyish curiosity when I read the destination listed for our next circuit. It was Torrin who saw it first as we caravan-boys crowded around the notice board.
“Graymore Coventry?!” he exclaimed. “Foreman, is that a joke?”
Our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, had remained waiting behind while we looked over the posting, no doubt anticipating our reaction when we came to that particular listing.
“No jokes in the employ,” he frowned seriously. “You know better than to ask a question like that.”
“But…why are we going there?” I ventured.
“Because we have been summoned. What other reason is there.”
Though we peppered him with questions for a while, there was nothing else that we could glean from him. For he was hardly of any higher station than us, and thus not privy to anything whatsoever. All that mattered was that an order had been made, a purchase given, and that now we must make our delivery.
And so we prepared for our journey, and the closer we came to it the more our initial excitement mingled with a growing sense of dread. By the time we reached the week of our expedition, we were equal parts enthusiastic and horrified for the sights we might see when we came to the Coventry.
To be clear, we were not so foolish as to fear that we, ourselves, might be made sacrifices by those strange priests, for we knew that the Slab Altar was considered one of the most holy relics in all of Gaverenth, and that only those who had been kept pure by a strict life-regimen were worthy to be offered thereon. But there is, of course, a natural dread to know that one might witness the taking of another’s life. Of course it would theoretically be possible to not walk into the square when such events were happening, but when you are a young man of ravenous curiosity, you know that you must see.
Thus we were preparing for our excursion against our own better natures. Pushed by marvel past our reason. If this were all, already I would say that we set out on our journey with a black sign over us. But in truth, even before we set forth on our circuit, we encountered not one, but three more dark omens.
First was the matter of our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, who grew deathly ill three days before we were supposed to leave the Plantation. Now everyone knows that it is terrible bad luck to set out under a sudden change in leadership. So much so, that though we were anxious to see the Coventry, we had to approach the management and request the trip be cancelled. They told us that they could not satisfy this request. They apologized that such was the case, stated that under normal circumstances they would have, but proclaimed that this journey was too essential to cancel. They could not say why, it was a great secret apparently, but they did assure us that it was not simply a matter of business, not something so simple as supply and demand, nothing as crude as a matter of money. No. There were deep matters at play, ones so great that the worse luck would be in us not seeing this campaign through. And so, though it meant we would ride out under a cursed sign, still we must go.
Of course this all only served to deepen our two-mindedness. Apprehension and fascination ratcheted higher than we knew was even possible. Our previous dread anticipation had now been touched by a sense of destiny. We were being driven, compelled even, towards some great fate. The call had been made, and whether to good or evil we had to answer.
Of the two, evil seemed the most likely, what with the unholy nature of our destination. And though it might seem strange to set out to what seems to be an evil fate, if it is your fate, then it cannot be resisted. We were like young Avalow, moving step-by-step towards the fire, eyes staring unflinchingly forward to his own destruction, unable to turn, because it was the one purpose for which he had been made. So, too, we must go and see for what we had been made.
The second sign of ill things came on the day of the Pledge. In all the seventy-one voyages I had made previously, I had not given a second thought to the solemn words that bound me to my mission. They had been meaningless mutterings every time, for I never had had any reason to not obey them. Indeed the process had always been so routine, that after the first six times I hardly even noticed the heartdrag of it anymore.
But this time I did notice it. Not only noticed it, but was shaken by it. So much so that I thought I might collapse right there, halfway through the second stanza. And this time, for the first time, I understood why the ritual of the Pledge affects our hearts so, why it makes our life-organ slow its beats, and thump them out heavily, even painfully. For the heart knows that it is being taken from you and submitted to another, and by its nature this is a death to it. And that is what the heartdrag truly is, the slow death-agonies of the heart.
Thus you must not pause in the ritual. You must hurry through the words and rush out your final “Amen,” which finally releases the heart back to its regular, though somewhat sadder, cadence. If you do not get through the whole Pledge quickly enough, then the heart will grow silent for too long…as we all bore witness to that day.
For no sooner did I finish my pledge, and my heart burst back into rapid life, then young Yalli came behind me for his turn. And as I was catching my breath I noticed that he was already quite pale, and that his words were very shaky. Right from the first sentence he was speaking too slowly, which meant his momentum would never be able to carry him on to the end. I wanted to shout out to him to stop, to turn back…but it was too late. He had just cleared the first stanza, and so that escape was forever closed off to him.
I could see the panic set in his face, see how he came to the same realization that I just had. His lips fluttered wildly and turned blue, but already the words were drying up. Three staccato whispers and then no more sounds came out of his mouth.
“Yalli!” I cried. “Breathe in!”
But it was not a lack of air, it was a lack of strength to expel it. He jerked horribly, trying to force out a single syllable, then we all heard a muffled bursting and he collapsed to the floor, never to rise again.
There were only three Treksmen left to make their oath after Yalli, but of course not a one of them would dare utter a word after what they had just seen. Though they knew it meant banishment from our order, there was simply no way that they could make the Pledge without hesitating in the words. And as we had all seen, to hesitate before your fate was to die by its wrath.
It was inevitable that the story of what had happened spread through the entire body of Treksmen, such that no others would agree to complete our partial company, no matter how great a bonus they were promised for it. And so we came by the second and third dark omens of our quest: the premature death of a Treksman, and the necessity to set out with an incomplete crew.
It was a black morning when at last we set out on our way.
On Monday I talked about how to bring a fitting end to a story. At this point we are still a ways off from the end of our tale, but we can discuss how I am setting up for it in the beginning. As I suggested in my previous post, I am tipping my hand right from the outset in this tale. Though the terms “Black Sun” and “Priests of Oolant” mean nothing to the reader, they should immediately understand that this story is going to end with the raising of some terrible, cataclysmic event, wherein a great many people are going to die.
This might seem to be contrary to my stated intent with this latest series: to focus on stories where the ending has some sort of “turning” element, one that goes beyond all that has been alluded to before, and gives new definition to all of the story’s themes and arcs. But I believe that I will be able to write the ending of this story in a way that is still surprising and satisfying, no matter how much of it I have already revealed.
To do this I am relying on two things. The first having a journey that redefines what the ending means. At the outset the reader is promised a cataclysmic event, but what that really means remains a mystery. I hope that by exploring the context of this world, the eventual destruction at the end will be cast in a light that the reader had not anticipated from the beginning.
The other strategy I am depending on is being able to still surprise the reader with how this destruction takes place. Saying that the region is subjected to a terrible catastrophe is pretty vague, and leaves a great deal open to the imagination. My hope is that when I finally get to laying out all the details that the reality of the moment will pack a few surprises for even the most imaginative of readers.
Before we get to that end, though, I want to take a moment to consider world building in stories, and how we create the systems within them. If rules are constantly changing, then they mean nothing; and if they are set in stone, but disinteresting, then–well–they’re disinteresting.
How can an author bridge the gap of providing constant new inventions in their world, but also avoid introducing elements that make loopholes in what came before? We’ll take a look at some ideas on Monday, and how I have composed the world-systems in this current story. Come back next week to check it out.
There is a dichotomy between works of fiction, where they can be considered either as works of fantasy, or as works of realism. Stories featuring magic and laser guns are obviously fantasy, and dramas in true-to-life settings are realistic.
Although that doesn’t quite cover all of the options. Because even if a story is in a “realistic” setting, it still might not feel very realistic. Many stories take a familiar backdrop, but then paint a story on it that no one actually believes would occur in the real world. Satires exaggerate elements of reality to an improbable degree, westerns are populated by cartoonish caricatures, spy thrillers have heroes saving the world from end-of-the-world crises every other Thursday!
It is not only the characters and the situations that reach beyond believability, though, it is also the fact that the story elements always happen to fit the classical narrative arcs so perfectly. Real life does not usually recreate the classic three-act structure, with a lowly nobody thrust into the role of a hero, and a moral message upon which all that is good and true prevails.
Not that there is anything wrong with sensationalism. The vast majority of popular media is at least somewhat sensational, and even my own stories on this blog are most often steeped in it! But sometimes when a narrative tool is so universally applied, it is worth stepping back and asking oneself why. Otherwise one runs the risk of wielding that which they do not understand, and harming their work through ignorance.
Every story, even the most realistic of the real, have to trim the fat of life at some point. Life is a fascinating thing to live, but a staggeringly boring thing to watch. Periods of sleep, trips to the bathroom, long commutes, conversations that say absolutely nothing…we usually go to stories to escape these exact doldrums! A story might hint at these grounding experiences, but by and large they are always going to distill the few significant moments and dispense with the mundane.
Since one has to polish life to only “the good parts” anyway, the question becomes how far do you decide to take that? Do you want to only cut out the fluff, but otherwise remain grounded? Or do you want to lean in to the artificiality and idealize your story as much as possible?
Currently I am writing a mystery story, which falls under a genre that almost never takes place in a fantasy setting, but which almost always is very sensational. The general idea is that so long as we’re cutting out the boring bits of detective work, like cross-referencing volumes of information and writing reports, then why not add a little spice to it as well? Sure, the killers could two average Joes…or they could be a one-legged man and his pygmy accomplice that shoots poison darts out of a blowgun. Neither one-legged men nor pygmies are fantasies, they really do exist, but they are relatively rare. And it was for that very reason of uniqueness that Doyle chose to make them the villains of his Sherlock Holmes case The Sign of the Four. It is more fantastic conclusion, even if not a more probable one.
Consider also the example of the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. In it we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters, who are thrown together seemingly at random. Charles Darnay, Doctor Manette, and Madame Defarge all begin the tale as complete strangers to one another. As the story progresses though, revelation follows revelation, and an intricate cobweb of surprising connections is made. It just so happens that Charles Darnay is the nephew of the cruel Marquis Evrémonde, whose crimes against humanity directly contributed to the current state of revolution in France. It also just so happens that Doctor Manette, who is Darnay’s father-in-law, was unjustly imprisoned by that very Marquis Evrémonde after he became a witness to one of those crimes. It also just so happens that Madame Defarge is the lone survivor of that crime which was witnessed by Manette, and she will use the Doctor’s testimony against his will to condemn Darnay!
Obviously the story could have been written without every character being so tightly coupled, and it arguably would have been more realistic that way. But then again, if you can make your story into an intricate work of art, then why not do it?
Because not every story should be sensational, and that for the very sake of sensationalism. For if every story was so slick and polished, then none of them would be. A Tale of Two Cities is an excellent and emotional drama and Sherlock Holmes is an excellent and exciting detective series, but each of them is benefited by a world that does not over-indulge in their patterns.
Every styling of story has its own strengths and weaknesses. Sherlock Holmes is able to command excitement and action, but it lacks in emotional impact. A Tale of Two Cities has emotional impact in spades, but it is deficient in relatability. A far more grounded story, such as the Emilio Estevez film The Way, gets right to the heart of relatable humanity, but lacks the exciting punch of Sherlock Holmes.
But that is alright, because each of these stories is strong in the area that they were meant to be strong. The areas where they lack are only the areas where they do not need any presence. Furthermore, they are made all the better at doing what they are trying to do by how they stand out in contrast from one another. It is important for authors to carefully choose the correct balance of realism/fantasy and grounded/sensational to fit the intended purpose of their tale. Also it is important for authors to be broad and diverse, so that the entire body of creative works do not lose their impact through over-saturation. Diversity in story-telling preserves depth of meaning in them all.
In my current story I am writing a mystery that is intentionally divided between being grounded and sensational. On the one hand the case procedures are very down to earth. There is considerable time spent talking about the less exciting parts of detective work, such as being detectives being bored. To be sure, there will not be any one-legged men or pygmies showing up at the end!
But on the other hand, the story’s dialogue also has an element of slick refinement to it. Consider in the last section how Daley effortlessly puts down his partner with exactly the skewering finesse we all wish we could manage in the heat of the moment.
The reason for this duality of styles in my story is because of the different situations that Daley and Price are in. Price is still chained to the doldrums of working on the force, Daley is free of the burdens of “real life,” and chasing his curiosities without restraint. To Price the job is still “by the books” while Daley is finally able to taste the “thrill of the chase.” Consider the paragraph where I describe their trip to Mexico. Daley rides first class and breezes through customs, Price sits in coach and has a long talk with an official. Daley is living the polished, idealized life, and Price is stuck in the rut. The different dynamic for these two felt like a perfect story to marry grounded realism with fanciful sensationalism, and then watch the friction build between those two halves. Come back on Thursday as we see whether Price and Daley are able to resolve this fundamental difference or not.
On a grassy knoll, far removed from any civilization, a small man sat perfectly still. Everything was quiet. There were no animals nearby, no sound of rushing water, no wind rustling through the trees behind him. He was the only thing that might make a noise, and he did not stir at all.
Instead he sat transfixed, eyes held unblinkingly towards an void that stretched before him. It appeared like billows of smoke compressed thousands of times, layers and layers of wispy tendrils combining to form a single cloud, one so thick and dark as to be impenetrable. Nothing could be seen behind it, if indeed there was anything at all. The man got the sense that he was staring into the very end of the world, beyond which no existence could be.
And it was so very massive. It stretched upwards until it was lost in the gray, overcast sky. It stretched far to either side until it was lost in the haze. It absorbed the man’s entire perspective, and his mind was lost in its depths. Staring at it made him feel dizzy, as if he were falling into it. He half expected to feel its touch at any moment, and could no longer tell how far it stood from where he sat. If it stood apart from him at all.
All about him was a thin, gray haze. So slight that it was almost imperceptible, like a filter that dimmed the world. He had not even noticed it thickening around him.
And there was the rhythm, too. The dull, deep pulsation that thudded through his core.
The man inhaled heavily through his nose. A stray thought interrupted his trance, something about how breathing was getting harder, like he had to suck longer to get enough air. He idly flexed his fingers through the dirt and it felt like touching them through thick gloves: vague and formless. His eyes came out of their stupor and looking down he saw dark gray tendrils swirling across his lap. He noticed how his legs and feet were growing numb.
Suddenly full consciousness came back and a terrible horror seized him! He leapt to his feet, turned on the spot, and attempted to run from his perch. While his limbs flailed valiantly, he did not move an inch. There was no friction at the soles of his feet. The ground simply did not seem to be there for him to push off against.
His mouth opened in what must have been a scream, yet no sound came out. The air was entirely gone now, and so his vocal chords throbbed in a vacuum. For a moment he thought he heard a dull buzzing, but it was merely the sensation of his ear-drums dissolving. All the soft tissue was fading away now: eyes, tongue, hair, the first layers of skin.
He slid deeper and deeper into the darkness. The thicker layers now made short work of his muscle and bone, disintegrating him into nothingness. For a brief moment the black void where he had been stood apart from the rest of the convulsing mist, retaining its humanoid form. Its dark head cocked curiously to the side, as if self-aware, but then the full depths of the darkness pressed unceasingly onward and the cavity was swallowed.
They needed somewhere to hide! Somewhere that the void would never be able to invade. But that was impossible…wasn’t it? In time the void would reach everywhere. Suddenly an epiphany settled on Allurian.
“Wait,” he said, reassuringly touching Ballos’s shoulder. Then he raised his hands, palms outstretched, and emanated a tone. All of the surrounding matter attuned itself to his signal and everything within a sphere of six feet ceased their movements, a perfect bubble of complete isolation around them.
Ballos stared about in surprise. There were numerous particles frozen in the air around them, flecks of dust which normally swirled so erratically that their eyes could not register their tiny forms. Now they stood perfectly frozen in time.
“What is this?” Ballos asked.
Allurian paused, looking for the right words to explain this. “I have claimed this sector. It is frozen in time, unable to register any change that I do not allow.”
“And outside of this ‘sector?'”
“As it was.”
Ballos could see the end of the alley beyond their bubble of isolation. The dark clouds were still pooling across the ground there.
“So it won’t be able to come in here?” Ballos asked.
“But it will still surround everything around us?” His voice was panicky again
“Well even if we survive, I don’t think we’d be able to get out again!”
“You’re probably right.”
Allurian pointed his palms upwards, and their sphere began to move upwards. No, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t the sphere moving upwards, rather it seemed like the entire world moved downwards while their sphere alone remained motionless in space. In either case they were now high in the air, far above the encroaching arms of black.
Allurian next moved his hands to the side, pointing away from the dark wall horizon. All the world seemed to slide beneath them, rippling past their point. Their speed began to increase. Mile after mile flew by, faster and faster, passing through them at a blur. The city, the fields, the river, the trees.
Ballos barely noticed a mountain far in the distance before it was already upon them. He raised his hands to brace for impact, but there was none. The mass rippled through them like an intangible wave. His consciousness was left perfectly intact in the midst, but his body felt as though invisible strands were pulling the rock rapidly through his form. In one moment he was composed of dirt, then of clay, then iron. It was as though his body was nothing more than a temporary conglomeration of all the materials surrounding him, held together only by his infinite consciousness. Had it always been this way, he wondered, and only now he could perceive it?
They sprang out of the sloping back of the mountain range and the ground continued to race beneath them. Faster and faster they went. Another mountain range, then a valley, then mountain range, then valley. And at this speed Ballos saw that the landforms followed one another in larger and more prolonged intervals, escalating like a chorus. At last they came to the Great Arced Plain, which many believed to extend on for eternity. But after a few seconds at this incredible speed it, too, fell behind them, and now they flew over a sea that also seemed to extend for eternity. It was the World Sea.
Allurian pointed his hands downwards now and the frothing waves of that sea rushed up to greet them. Larger and larger the water loomed. Closer and closer they got.
Never did they plunge into it, yet continually nearer they became. Impossibly near. A foot, then an inch, then a hundredth of an inch away. And the waves towered above them, growing larger and larger. Or were Ballos and Allurian growing smaller?
And as the waves appeared larger, they also became slower, until they finally halted entirely and appeared less like mounds of water and more like crystalline towers. And up and down their forms they glinted the reflections of the sun everywhere, like so many haphazardly placed windows.
Allurian turned his focus towards one of those reflections, and now he and Ballos grew closer to that. As they did so they saw that glint separate into innumerable threads of light. And still they pressed nearer, and the beams became larger and larger. Now Allurian and Ballos were weaving between the beams, and those appeared like massive tunnels of burning splendor. And now, at last, they passed into one of those tunnels and were clothed entirely in its glory.
At last Allurian put his hands down and they came to a stop.
Ballos breathed out in awe and took in their surroundings. A golden haze filled the tunnel of light, and all about it was scattered with innumerable bright points of every hue.
Ballos paced the floor, and as he did so those points seemed to shimmer, to slide from one shade to another. He moved to the center of the tunnel and looked at the points head-on. They were a collage presenting him a reflection of the last thing this beam of light had bounced off of: the nearby wave of water.
Ballos squinted his eyes and pushed his focus deeper down the stream of light, and as he did so he could see the reflections of its entire history. A rock it had deflected off of before it had fallen into the sea, a tree before that, a cloud as it entered into the atmosphere, another world, and every inch of space in between, all the way back to its inception at the sun. He saw it all as clearly as if he were there now. He turned around and looking the other way he could see the beam extending forever forward, an unceasing journey laid out yet to come. It would plunge into the water next, bend and move deeper, start to fray out and lose luster, covering an even wider area, and then…
“Ballos, where are you?”
He heard Allurian’s voice as if from afar. How strange. They had just been beside each other hadn’t they?
“Oh here you are,” Allurian’s voice grew clearer and slowly the man materialized next to Ballos. “You’re in the future.”
“We’re…in a beam of light?” Ballos knew that they were, yet somehow he still had to confirm it.
“In a moment of light. Time is entirely frozen in relation to us here. Not merely moving slowly, literally frozen in place. We could stay here, well, forever if we needed. We could stay forever in any of the moments along this light beam’s path.”
“And the void won’t come into here?”
“No. If it isn’t already here at this particular moment of time, it never can be.”
“Thank you, Allurian. This will do.”
On Monday I wrote about how there are only so many stories I’ll ever write in my life and how I struggled to accept that fact. In the end, though, I’ve made peace with my limitations. I have promised myself that I will write regularly, and that I will publish as many of my story ideas that I can. But beyond that, we will see what will be.
And so long as we’re admitting limitations, I also have had to accept that my chances of being a commercially successful author are pretty abysmal, no matter how skilled I might become. Few stories get picked up by publishers and even fewer become a hit. Beyond that, I honestly think the sort of stuff I write would not appeal to a wide audience even if it were given the chance.
Which I suppose sounds pessimistic, but really it isn’t. I only mean to clear the air of any unlikely expectations, so that I can instead focus on the genuine good that remains. Because the fact is, even if no one else cares to read this stuff, I absolutely LOVE a story like what I have posted here today. Maybe it isn’t a good fit for everyone, but it most certainly is for me. It is exactly the sort of thing I would want to read, and so it is exactly the sort of thing I want to write.
And I get to. There’s no one to stop me from just writing more and more of this and making it for its own sake. Isn’t that reason enough to be happy? The way to make peace with your limited resources is to love the ones that you do have. Rather than mourn the things that never were, cherish the ones that are!
For now, this is all of Cael I have to show. There are a lot more ideas for it simmering in my mind, but it’ll be a long while before they’re ready for the light of day. In the meantime I need to move forward to next week’s blog post!
On Monday I want to address a theme that presented itself in the Darkness portion of today’s story: that of being consumed by an enemy. This sort of theme has been showing up in stories for millennia, and I believe there are deep psychological reasons for its prevalence. I’d like to explore them with my next post, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!
From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.
What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.
First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.
Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.
But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.
How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.
And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.
The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.
To Find Truth)
The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.
So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.
Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.
This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.
Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.
Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.
On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.