Power Suit Racing: Part One

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

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

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

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

“And promises?”

“Are empty words.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m here for a suit,” Taki declared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boro. Why?”

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

Boro looked genuinely hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish Rhuni was here.

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

That’s the point.

“…and GO!”

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

How he had missed this.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

***

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

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

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

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

Network Down: Part One

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Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

Part Two

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

It Follows

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This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”

How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”

Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.

But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.

 

Phisherman and Back to the Future)

When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.

So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.

That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!

 

The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)

In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.

Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.

This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.

 

Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)

Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.

Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.

You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.

Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!

 

World Building)

There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.

Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.

But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.

And potions? Yes.

Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.

Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.

What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!

Well what would those look like?

You get the picture.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.

It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.