Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.
There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.
Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.
First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.
One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:
“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”
“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”
And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.
This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.
Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.
Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”
This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.
With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.
Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.
Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.
Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.
At Odds With Your Character)
This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.
So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”
A Question of Time)
One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.
On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.
A Sharp Focus)
So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.
For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.
Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.
Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.
And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.
Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.
As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.
And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.
Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!
(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)
Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.
Do you like to watch the deleted scenes from movies? It’s always been by my favorite sort of Special Feature to check for with a new film. It’s a fun way to extend the story beyond the end credits, and allows me to enjoy the characters and settings a little more deeply.
But while I enjoy them in this removed format, I most often find myself appreciating the good sense that was shown in removing these moments from the finished product. Even when the scene is a “good one,” it is very rare that I wish it would have been left in the story.
In fact often when I watch a film for the second or third time I’ll start to realize that it could have benefited from being pared down even more. Sometimes the scenes that I think need to be excised are even the ones with the best lines or slickest action. Why? Because as awesome as those parts may be individually, they just aren’t contributing to the whole. It’s like a symphony where a world-class soloist that is trying to play a different song from the rest of the orchestra. Maybe they’re impressive, but they’re out of sync and so they lessen the overall experience.
I’ve previously discussed that when it comes time to cut out a beloved scene, you might be able to transplant it somewhere else to grow into something new. But today let’s take a step back and look at how you can even recognize that a scene isn’t fitting in the first place.
It’s Too Much)
The most difficult scene to cut is the one that does something better than any other part of the story. Perhaps it is the most exciting, the most funny, or the most sentimental. The temptation is to assume that a story is merely the sum of its parts, that if it is comprised of nothing but high points then the whole will be greater as a result. This simply isn’t true, though. In the end a story might be more than the sum of its parts…or it might be less.
Sometimes less is more. Allowing a single scene to be a little dimmer may allow your overall story to shine all the brighter. There have been times where a story has blown me away just by how satisfying the complete package was, even if no single scene stood out head and shoulders above the rest.
An example of a story that handled its rises and falls with careful precision in this way was The Incredibles. To me that film was endlessly rewatchable and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I liked all the scenes, but I couldn’t point to a one that took my breath away by itself. Only later did I recognize it was due to how effortlessly the story flowed from one scene to the next, how each of its scenes directly derived from what had come before, how it maintained a steady flow from start to finish. And of course it still had some high points, its climaxes of action and drama, but each of these still felt grounded to the rest of the tale.
Which brings up an important question: what about the climax? Isn’t there always going to be a scene that is more something-or-other than any of the others? The entire work can’t be a monotone after all! Yes of course, but the issue is where these moments feel unnatural. Think of how two waves in the ocean might run into one another to produce a spike taller than either of the previous. So, too, a story should naturally have moments where separate arcs combine into a high point of tension. But if two little ripples are combining into a fifty-foot tidal wave, it is going to feel very off!
It Throws but Never Catches)
Another issue that stands out is a story that creates a moment of intrigue which is either never paid off, or never paid off in a satisfying manner. I don’t like to give specific negative examples, but I’m sure you can readily call to mind any number of stories that began with an incredible premise that they then never deliver on.
Obviously if a story has this problem the ideal solution would be for the writer to improve the lackluster resolutions so that they deliver on the promise, rather than just removing the promise so that the beginning becomes as mundane as all the rest. That being said, it’s important to understand that some checks can’t be cashed…by anyone. Every story and every writer has their limitations, and its alright to play within your own.
Sometimes the promise also needs to be removed because the fulfilling of it actually hurts the story. I recently excised a sizable chunk of the novel I’m working on because of how it was distracting from the greater whole. Specifically I intended for my main characters to recruit a dozen workers to come help them work a season in their fields. This seemed like a nice way to evolve the story into a wider circle, but introducing new characters creates an expectation in the reader that they will become a meaningful part of the story. The fact was that I never intended to engage with or develop these new characters because they just weren’t that important to the core story.
I was faced with either lifting the whole story to catch the expectation of the new characters becoming important, or else change the plot so that no new hires would come to join the family. I decided to go with the latter, which meant cutting out significant parts of the plot that I’m still smoothing out. I really do feel it was the right decision, though.
It Dramatically Changes the Tone)
The final consideration is perhaps the simplest. One has to consider the times where a single scene interrupts the emotional flow that exists on either side of it. This is different from an inflection point where the entire tale takes a turn into the new act, such as a moment of tragedy that signals the ramping up of conflict. An inflection point represents a permanent change in all of the tone that follows, whereas an interruption is an erratic blip, an outlier in the middle of a sequence of events that are otherwise homogeneous in tone. Though the tone that is established in this errant scene might be moving, it is distracting from the cadence of the whole. As such it should be removed so that the whole may feel more consistent…with one exception.
Sometimes a scene is intentionally made to stick out when its purpose to is foreshadow events that are yet to come. The writer is throwing out a new plot hook which will only be caught sometime later. I am using this particular technique extensively in the novel I am currently working on.
In that story the plot follows the simple day-to-day actions of a family cultivating their future. They have minor setbacks and struggles, but overall the story is very lighthearted and cheerful throughout…except for when the narrator finishes certain segments by detailing his horrifying nightmares. These sequences are drastically different in tone from everything on either side of them, and that is intentional. I know that the reader won’t forget these sequences, and when eventually things turn dangerous on the island, they will feel properly forewarned.
In conclusion, just because a scene is “good” does not mean that it is “good for your story.” If it is possible to take the essence that you enjoyed from that scene and transplant it elsewhere in your tale then go for it! But if not, then maybe that idea is best filed away until you can find it a new home. Never forget, just because a scene doesn’t belong in this one story does not mean it belongs in the trash.
On Thursday I will share the conclusion of Harold and Caroline, and in that half there was a piece of sentimentality I very much liked, but ultimately felt didn’t belong in the work as a whole. I’ll explain what that scene was and why I made the decision to cut it. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful day!
Reylim’s feet made loud echoes as they pattered across the stony plains. Now that Glimmer soared alongside of her, illuminating the way, she was able to move along far more quickly. She had settled into a well-practiced pace, one that she could maintain for a few hours if needed. Glimmer had explained to her that it was necessary for them to reach something called “the Nexus” which held a direct stream to all of the life on the planet. If Glimmer could imbue itself into that Nexus then it would be able to provide a spark to all peoples and creatures, awaking them from their current slumber.
As she ran Reylim kept turning different parts of her conversation with Glimmer in her mind. Suddenly a thought occurred to her that was so fundamental she couldn’t believe she hadn’t conceived of it sooner.
“Glimmer,” she queried, “you say that when your light enters the Nexus this whole world will become illuminated and people will be able to act and choose as they see fit. Similar to how things are on my world, Celsar?”
Essentially yes. The people here will be far behind in development and understanding, but their fundamental existence will be the same.
“Right…” she affirmed, coming now to her main point. “So does that mean that Celsar itself was once like this? And that someone helped you to ignite it as well?”
I assume so. I know of many things generally, but of specifics my understanding is limited to this world. And if things did occur in a similar way on Celsar it was done by another reflection of the Glimmer.
“Oh right…because you are not the core Glimmer?”
I am a reflection of Glimmer. Think of it as an individual spark from a fire, just as there is an individual spark of Glimmer in you as well. All of the sparks are merely extensions of the original flame, and yet they are their own fire as well And as you know many things naturally by intuition, such as the importance of goodness and virtue, yet there are many specifics that are known to the Glimmer but which remain hidden to you.
“And so you are specifically the spark of this world?”
I am meant to be, if we successfully ignite this world.
“Does a hero ever fail to ignite a world?”
The original Glimmer cannot fail, it cannot be destroyed, but we individual sparks can. I am keenly aware of my own fallibility and mortality. Therefore it is possible for a world’s intended intended spark to be killed, and then that world would be consumed into the void, torn apart into nothingness.
There was a pause.
And certainly a hero has failed before. Reylim, I must be honest with you. You are not the first to come here. Indeed, Nocterra has existed since long before your own world, Celsar. I remember watching Celsar burn into life many eons ago. And still no hero has been able to save this world. I think you will be the last, as the nether regions are already disintegrating into the void.
Reylim shivered. Her heart thumped, protesting the next question that dangled on the end of her lips, but she had to ask it. “And what is the void?”
Exactly as it sounds, a void. The more you try to define it, the further you stray from comprehending its pure nothingness. It is not right to call it living, as that would require the existence of some intelligent entity in it. It just absence, and that is all.
“If I fail, I will be consumed by it?” Reylim’s feet had slowed drastically, barely moving above a slow walk now.
I will not lie to you. Yes.
Suddenly Reylim wondered what she had gotten herself into. Of course she had been aware that her great quest would involve danger, but she had always been thrilled at the excitement of such things. It had all sounded so romantic, now the stark reality of it terrified her. She should not be here in such a place. How could the sentinels have sent her? What was one young girl and a dim spark against an eternal–
A cold thrill tore through Reylim’s as her eyes lighted on dark forms approaching ahead of her. They were tall and thin, and barely humanoid in form. Their edges were too sharp to be organic, though, forming sharp geometric edges. All the area around them appeared warped and stretched, as though the very matter and light around them was tearing apart at their presence. At their cores there was pure nothingness. They did not appear as three dimensional entities with a front, sides, and a back, but rather they seemed more like holes that had been punched clear through the eternities of space, reaching out to swallow Reylim.
“What do I do?” she begged, her voice shrill and panicked as she fumbled with the ceremonial dagger at her side.
Your weapons are of no use here. Get away from this place and calm yourself, I will try to slow the advance.
Reylim still wasn’t ready to put her dagger away, and she didn’t want to turn her back on these apparitions. Instead she awkwardly fumbled backwards, until her heel caught a rise in the rock and she fell onto her back. Then her panic fully set in and she scrambled back up to her feet and sprinted away.
As she went she shot glances over her shoulder, and she saw Glimmer rush up to the dark forms and begin encircling them with long streaks of light. Those streaks hung in the air as barriers which seemed to restrain the advance for a moment, before the light was dissolved back away into nothingness.
With her eyes turned backwards she failed to notice that she was running straight for one of the small ditches in the rock. For a brief moment she felt the shock of nothing beneath her feet, and then the thud of impact as she hit the ground beneath. She instinctively converted her momentum into a roll, tearing her robes and gashing her knees in the process.
She stumbled up to her feet, noticing that her breath was coming rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Glimmer had told her to get calm, and now she felt even further panicked as she tried to do just that and found that she could not. As fresh waves of despair began to wash over her she noticed new void forms materializing on either side of her. They began as small pinpricks of emptiness, only noticeable by how the world around them warped inwards as if towards little black holes. Then the voids widened outward, stretching out to her.
She wanted to run away but her legs were trembling so badly that she dropped back to her knees instead. Her mouth moved in the shape of the word “no” but no sound came out.
Please, Reylim, I need your help to diminish them!
A streak of light shone over her head and Glimmer spun around each of the void figures, binding them in light.
“I don’t understand,” she croaked.
Your fear and your despair cripple you. They take away your will to act and draw the void toward you. You need to leave here, but you need to do it calmly.
“I don’t know how.” Already the dark forms were breaking past Glimmer’s restraints.
Just stop focusing on them. Focus on yourself instead. What do you feel?
Reylim tried to stand once more, but her legs continued to waver uncontrollably. “Unstable” she flustered, unsure of what Glimmer’s point was..
What is unstable like? Glimmer continued dashing back and forth between the two dark forms, putting additional light barriers before them, each fell more quickly than the last.
“Like having no power,” she answered, but then realized that that wasn’t quite right. “Or maybe having too much power, but it isn’t going the right way.” As her mind shifted inwards her legs began to quake less, just enough that she could hobble to the end of the ditch. She put her hands over the edge, but when she tried to lift herself over found she still lacked the finesse to do so.
That’s good Glimmer encouraged. What else?
She tried to push the sense of danger from her mind, and instead closed her eyes, centering herself. “And I’m hurt,” she winced. “My leg is throbbing.”
Yes, there’s blood on it, can you feel that?
She paused. “Yes–I missed that somehow.” The warm liquid pooling down her skin, sticking to her robes. It was unpleasant. Reylim felt a rush of clarity and she easily swung herself up to the higher ground. Once above she opened her eyes again and saw the void forms following her out from the ditch.
Her heartbeat quickened and she tried to calm herself again. Her inhale came sharp and rapid, but the exhale was slower and more controlled. The void forms wavered.
Very good, now we need to do this next part carefully. Glimmer came bounding up from the chasm, resuming its perch above Reylim’s shoulder. Take in your surroundings. But keep calm.
Reylim slowly turned about and summed up her situation. The two void forms in front were being joined by the original three, and were fanning out to come at her from different angles. She looked to the left and the right and on each side there were another three forms approaching as well. Behind her, the way she had intended to depart, there came another six. They were all closing in.
Reylim’s heart began escalating again and she noticed the periphery of her vision starting to warp and darken.
Accept them for what they are. Let them exist, but apart from you. You are in danger. Say it, but say it calmly.
“I–” Reylim’s voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “I am in danger,” she forced out in a monotone. As she did it seemed more factual than emotional. Her heart returned to normal. She noticed that the calmer she was the slower and smaller the void forms seemed to become.
Good. Now if you recall, the widest angle of retreat was between the ones on your left and the ones directly behind. Move that way. You may run, but only if you can do so calmly.
Reylim exhaled slowly then turned in that direction. She walked forward, purposefully. Each step brought her closer to both danger and escape, but she tried to focus on the latter of those two. Behind her she could hear Glimmer leaving more streaks of light to guard her back. Then Glimmer moved forward and worked to restrain the ones ahead, slowing them enough that she would clear their gap.
At least, she thought she would clear it. It was going to be close. She quickened her pace to a light run. Her heartbeat quickened, but not from fear. She noticed that the throbbing in her leg had increased by the faster motion and she focused on that sensation, burying her consciousness into self-awareness. She glanced down at the ground in front of her, memorizing its features. Then she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the nearing forms.
“Three steps,” she muttered to herself, “then a slight rise.” She leapt up onto the shelf. “And down the other side….Just another dozen paces and I’m clear.”
Rather than ignore the sound of Glimmer whizzing about her she noted it, projected from it where the voids must be, and so became aware when she had passed their perimeter.
She opened her eyes, listening to the sounds of Glimmer fading into the background. She did not stop, following Glimmer’s instructions to get away from that place. The further she ran the less light she had, and so she stumbled across the dark landforms. In time she slowed back to a walk, cautiously feeling her way forward and trusting that Glimmer would come and find her whenever it was safe to do so.
As if on cue, the area around her began getting brighter every moment. She spun around and saw Glimmer drifting to her. She was surprised to realize that Glimmer had lost a great amount of its luminescence and Reylim realized that its defenses of her had not been without cost.
“You’ve been hurt,” she said, her voice mixed with equal parts concern and guilt.
So have you. But we are safe.
“I’m sorry,” she looked down in shame.
“I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”
Why not? You had just been given some very frightful news. Perhaps you needed to calm down, but there is no shame in that you needed to calm down.
Now that the immediate danger was past her, the deeper more abiding one took the forefront of her mind again.
“Glimmer, I don’t think I should have come!” she exclaimed, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. “I am not the hero that this world needs. I didn’t know what it was going to be like here. I’m just one small girl and the void is ageless and eternal. I can’t even fight it!”
And so you would rather curl up and hide from it all?
There was no judgment in Glimmer’s message, the question was sincere. Reylim nodded.
What would you curl up into?
“Somewhere safe. Somewhere quiet.”
Like a void?
Reylim paused, a moment of clarity washing over her. “That’s what you meant by saying I was summoning them? When I get panicky I feel paralyzed…and I just want to let go and hide…into nothingness.”
That is how the void works. Its only power is derived from what we give to it. You can fight it by your battles within.
“But how can I want it and be afraid of it at the same time?”
It sounds strange, I suppose, but you’ll find many people tend to be afraid of the very things they want. But another part of you wants to be a hero as well, and you are afraid of that also, aren’t you? The best part of you is afraid of the void, and the worst part of you is afraid of…
“Sacrifice,” Reylim said softly, staring downwards. “My whole life I’ve been trained to give my all for a noble cause, but it’s a very hard thing now that I’ve come to it.” Her vision was becoming blurry and she pressed her eyes shut to squeeze out the water. “I’m sorry, Glimmer. I really don’t want to let this world down and I think the lives that could be here deserve to have their chance…. But I’m just not the stuff that heroes are made of.”
No one is.
No one is born with heroism already in their blood, no one becomes a hero first and then afterwards performs their great heroic act. Every hero only became one while feeling just as small and miserable as you.
By not worrying about the ‘how.’ All you ever need to worry about is just taking the very next step.
Reylim paused, biting her lip and feeling the streams of tears continue to flow down her cheeks. “Can you please just promise me that I’m not the last chance for this world? Please…tell me that if even if I fail everything can still be alright. Tell me that the mission can extend past me.”
Child, Glimmer lowered itself to shine warmly on her face. You still do not understand. This world is not the mission, our igniting it is only a byproduct of our true mission.
On Monday I promised that I would introduce new characters in this section of Glimmer, specifically the enemy of the story and the people that populate this world. Unfortunately I only got the first of those done this week, and it is possible that this story might end up being split into four parts instead of three. That’s alright, though, I don’t want to rush it faster than it should be.
In any case hopefully you were able to see how the competing themes and arc were expanded in this entry, with a few more threads yet to be introduced. Then, finally, all will taper together for a single climatic finish.
Having introduced the “villain” of the story I’d like some time to examine it in greater detail. This enemy is not a a traditional character, it is more of an eternal force. Sometimes these tides of power show up in stories, in fact they have been present in each of the short stories in this latest series. Come back on Monday when we’ll examine how they have been used, and what makes them useful when crafting a tale.
Over the last month I’ve rather enjoyed my foray into the surreal and the imaginative. My theme for this series was to embrace the dreams, the nightmares, the meditations, and the free-associative thinking that manifest our subconscious to us. We began with Sculpting Light, took a darker turn with Free Cleaning Service, had a sleepy stroll through a Deep Forest, and most recently meditated on childhood with Tico the Jester. As I suggested at the end of that last story, however, there has been another purpose in this series apart from exploring the workings of the subconscious mind. My other reason for conducting this series has been to craft stories where each had a different central focus. I briefly mentioned the need for these in my Cliché vs Story post, where I suggested that a timeless narrative often turns out better when focusing on the character’s experience, and then trusting the audience to empathize with that journey. Now that’s not always the case for a narrative, and certainly not the case for other types of story. Today we’ll break down a few of the most common focuses a story can have, the strengths inherent in each of their designs, and the examples I gave for each of these in my most recent stories.
To start off we’ll look at the opposite of what I recommended for narrative-driven stories. There are times where your singular and primary focus as a writer should indeed be the mind of the person reading your work. I don’t just mean that you write to elicit specific emotions from the reader, most every type of story will aim to accomplish that, but rather that you seek to incorporate your reader’s individual life experience as an actual element of your tale. Your work, as it lays on the page, is left unfinished and can only be completed by what your audience puts into it.
The story of The Lady, or the Tiger presents a jilted lover who holds the power to give the man who has spurned her either death at the paws of a tiger or else a life happy with the woman he prefers. What she chooses is not ever revealed, though, rather the audience is asked to answer the question of how it concludes. Why? Because the story isn’t really about the woman and what she would or would not do, it is about inviting every reader to look inside of themselves and answer what they would do in such a situation.
My first story of this series, Sculpting Light, was designed with the readers as its focus. It does not feature a specific question that I want the readers to ask themselves, but it was an invitation to them to take a journey into their own free-associative thinking. Throughout its body I try to awaken the reader’s subconscious by transitioning from one topic to another on a whim, striving for that familiar game of associations where the most tenuous of connections are enough to weave all manner of categories together. Then, at the end, I conclude with a single beam of light racing off into infinite space, but that was never meant to be a conclusion. It was meant to be an invitation, an opportunity for the readers to now ask themselves where they think that beam of light goes, or what it reminds them of, what it is like, or even what it is not like. I’ve shown you how my mind works, now how does yours?
Obviously the most common focus for a story is that of the character. The author spends time trying to really get to know the story’s protagonist and then ensures that every outcome is consistent with that protagonist’s principles and behavior. If the protagonist is to evolve in the story he or she must do so in a way that is believable, a way that feels warranted. The conclusion that the protagonist secures must be the one that is true to all that has followed before. If this is done well and the character’s arcs feel honest, then the anticipation is that the audience will be able to enter the hero’s shoes and feel every plight as if it was their own.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the morbid end that finds our main characters are only the ones that they have brought upon themselves. As Lady Macbeth pressed her husband to take life, so to she then feels pressed by guilt to take her own. As Macbeth was willing to attain a throne by the shedding of others’ blood, so to he was doomed to lose that throne by the spilling of his own blood. It simply was not in their nature to have the story resolve itself in any other way.
My short story Free Cleaning Service was a story that focused primarily on character above all else. Jim Morgan is so haunted by memories of what he’s done and seen that eventually he conjures up a manifestation of the very evil he has always feared would be led back to his home. Bit by bit he’s felt his soul being smothered by association with all that is dark in the world, and in the conclusion he awakens to a literal darkness and the entering of its agent of destruction.
Some stories set aside both character and audience, and instead try to capture the truths of an entire portion of the world. The focus here might be on a specific time, or a place, or an event. While it isn’t required, often these sorts of stories are written when an author is trying to capture the spirit of an era, intending for the audience to not lose sight of the lessons that were inherent to that environment. This could also be a story that challenges our concept of reality by presenting another far-flung world to which the reader comes as a guest.
At its core, Of Mice and Men is not really a story about its characters, it is about a time and a place, an experience in history. George Milton and Lennie Small are only provided as representations of the greater story that many people were living through during the Great Depression in America. The tale captures the atmosphere that pervaded that chapter of humanity, and the overwhelming frustration it brought that a man no longer seemed entitled to the sweat of his brow, that he may toil and try and do his best, but still be guaranteed nothing. The story is about an environment where everyone has a dream, a hope, or a plan, but the machinations of an uncaring world will crush them all alike.
In my story Deep Forest it was my intention to capture a mood more than anything else. I thought of a place that was rich and heavy and full of mysteries and ancient whispers, then I set about writing a story that captured it. Yes, there was a main protagonist, but she wasn’t present for the reader to get caught up in her as an individual, but just to serve as eyes and ears that let the reader feel that they were in that forest themselves. What thoughts and feelings might have been invoked in the reader by the piece wasn’t my main concern, either, really I just wanted them to be able to appreciate the Forest for what it was and that was it.
Another common type of story is all about examining a principle, a lesson, a concept, or an abstract idea. These could be allegories, fables, parables or moral lessons which seek to instruct, or they may simply be trying to capture one of the common human experiences, such as love, loss, hope, or dismay. In either case the form of the story is trying to give embodiment to a naturally disembodied concept, and their quality will be determined by how well they capture the true nature of that idea.
The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, is not really about either of its titular characters. Its sole focus is to communicate its underlying moral, slow and steady wins the race. Now once this principle is understood it will be up to the readers to identify which ambitions they have approached too vigorously and then burned out on, and how they might approach them with a more measured cadence. But this isn’t the same as writing with the Reader as the main concern, as this sort of inner dialogue comes about only by having the expression of the principle, not the Reader, as the measure of its success.
My most recent short piece, Tico the Jester, is my personal example of a story that had a concept as its central focus. In that tale the little girl and her toy jester are ancillary to the root examination of childhood innocence, its dependence upon ignorance, and the pattern of how it is lost in times of grief. I chose my characters for how well I felt they served these themes, but had I thought of a more fitting representation for childhood innocence I would have changed the entire setting and cast without a second thought.
The final focus for a story is that of the community. This is the ensemble piece where no single character carries the full meaning of the tale, but rather their united ripples merge into a single wave of significance. The purpose of this narrative may be to communicate an optimistic message of how an entire society unites to bring about some good greater than any one individual could accomplish, or it might be more somber in how it shows characters’ individual flaws accentuating one another to bring about some horrible tragedy that ought not to have ever been.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of an undertaking that is so massive that no one person could accomplish it alone. Certainly there is a sole ring-bearer, but from the start to the finish he is only able to succeed by being supported-and even literally carried-by an entire community of souls around him. More than that, his one quest is only a shadow of the greater struggle that is raging in all the world around, one in which every man’s soul is being put to the test for good to triumph over evil. The message of the story is that great things can be accomplished, but only by the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals contributing as one.
My example for a community-focused story will come in the form of my next post on Thursday. It will be a pretty unusual looking community, and it will remain consistent with the dream-like meditative series we are about to conclude, but it will nonetheless have at its core an examination of how disparate characters combine for the benefit and destruction of one another.
In the end, it all really comes down to a question of who or what is your story being true to? Should your characters have this conversation, or should the plot take this turn, or should you detail the finer points of this setting? Yes, if it will be helpful to your subject, whether that be audience, character, environment, concept, or community. Indeed many of the decisions you have to face as an author will only be resolved when you have identified what it is your story must be true to.