Raising the Stakes

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Quality over Quantity)

There is a common misconception in storywriting where the more lives that hang in the balance the more important the story is. The classic scenario is a sequel that has to up the ante from the tale that came before, and does so by just expanding the region of impending destruction. First a village is being threatened, then a nation, finally the entire world. I’ve mentioned this trend in a prior post.

Now there’s nothing wrong in a sweeping epic with massive armies clashing into one another and the fate of the entire world on the line. Writers just need to be sure that they aren’t falling for tired clichés, or trying to use “epicness” to compensate for an otherwise weak narrative. If the entire world is at risk it should only be because that is what is needed for the story to work.

The other thing writers need to be aware of when setting their sights so high is that this may not actually be the most effective method of getting your reader to care about your story. Quite frankly you don’t need genocide to give a story weight, you only need to threaten a single character that you have made me care about. That’s the key to truly giving your stories meaningful stakes: quality over quantity.

 

Examples)

Interestingly, this notion has been wonderfully illustrated in a comic-book movie of all things. In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the main protagonist is mortally wounded and Liz journeys to the Angel of Death to save him. There she is cautioned that his survival will ultimately doom all of humanity, to which she replies she doesn’t care, she just wants him restored. In real life this would be a choice of immense selfishness, but in the context of the story we, like Liz, care far more for the individual we know than the countless ones we don’t. To us the characters we have met and interacted with are actual persons and all the masses are nothing more than set dressing.

Consider also the deeply moving mistreatment of Tom Robinson, Jem, and Scout in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Each of these characters is menaced by a common foe in Bob Ewell. Though the entire story takes place in a sleepy, little town with only a few lives hanging in the balance, we feel greatly affected nonetheless. Not in spite of its quiet, low-scale realism, but because of it. We feel incensed at the prejudice shown against Tom Robinson because we know such injustices really do happen. We are terrified by Jem and Scout being attacked on the road from school because that is a very real fear for all with children.

And the tension is all the higher because of the close intimacy of the villain to his victims. Were Bob Ewell a war-mongering tyrant sweeping through the land with countless soldiers he would have been far less unnerving. There is something chilling about the frankness of a solitary drunk staggering through the woods at night.

Even when writing a story that is larger than life, you still need strong, individual characters that the reader cares deeply about. The bigger action will only be affecting insofar as it applies to those individuals you care for. Consider the film Patton, which features an epic scene where the general fields tens of thousands of men and machinery are against another army in vicious battle. This scene only lands because it has been preceded by one of Patton standing alone in the street, wielding a handgun against a swooping fighter jet. We care for the man’s commitment, foolish as it may be, and it is that which leads us to care about his triumph in the greater war.

 

Implementations)

In each of my stories during this last series I have tried to focus primarily on the small and intimate relationships over the large and abstract. Let us consider the ways I implemented smallness into the bigger picture.

With the Beast had a very limited cast of only five individuals. And one of those individuals, the reader, is an invisible observer of the other four. Essential to working with a small cast is that each must have a very distinct voice. John was the voice of wisdom and stability, William was drive and ambition, Clara was innocence and naiveté, Eleanor was compassion and concern. The very first thing I did upon introducing these characters was to illustrate these fundamental differences. If readers are going to connect with your core characters they have to understand them, and the more distinct those characters are the faster that understanding will be established.

The Heart of Something Wild also featured only a few core characters, but additionally an entire tribe stood in the background. Here I found myself in an interesting situation where I needed the audience to care about that tribe, but at the same time keep my work within the short story format. I didn’t have enough time to really bring the community to life for the reader, and so I used a compromise. I instead tried to earn the audience’s affection for the main character, Khalil, and then asked them to inherit his concern for the tribe. Whenever a reader makes a connection with a character, they will naturally come to care for the things that that character cares for, just as with Patton and his war.

In Glimmer I have had the same conundrum repeat itself. Reylim has come to Nocterra to ignite it and allow for countless generations to live their lives, and so the fate of the entire world really is hanging in the balance. I knew that it would be impossible to quantify the weight of that, so instead I chose to focus on individuals. I even explicitly state that the mission here is not about the world, it is about Reylim’s personal growth and development. I only ask the reader to invest in Reylim, with the understanding that the fate of the world will simply be a byproduct of her own development.

In just this last section I finally allowed Reylim and the reader to witness the lives that she was fighting for. I knew I didn’t want to do this with a meaningless montage of the masses, though, so again I limited myself, this time with a sample of three intertwined souls. Their story was meant to be a representation of all the rest of humanity, and as such incorporated timeless themes of love, jealousy, regret, atonement, and closure. In this way the focus of my story remained personal and intimate, but also made the whole world matter more.

 

It seems that people are excellent at extrapolating the masses from a small selection. Usually when we see a group of people all we see is a group, but when we see a single individual we see a representation of all mankind.

So if you want the reader to care about the bigger picture, all you need to do is extract from those masses a smaller representation of characters and make the audience care for them instead. And if you don’t have a bigger picture, don’t worry about it. It may make for a more exciting movie trailer to see huge armies pouring into one another’s ranks, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. There can still be a sense of epic importance in the struggle of an individual soul. Indeed, I would argue such stories are usually far more weighty than those about the thousands.

On Thursday I will post the fourth segment to the Glimmer story, and in it I intend to make the action firmly focused on Reylim and her own personal journey. I’ll see you there.

Massive Forces

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Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.

Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:

  1. They are a distinct entity
  2. They have a personality
  3. They have individual desires
  4. They have the ability to choose

When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”

This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.

This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.

But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.

Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.

One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.

Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.

During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.

The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.

But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.

After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.

Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.

Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.

This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.

 

It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.

Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.

With the Beast

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Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.

Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.

Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.

Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.

Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.

At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?

But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.

The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.

As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.

John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.

Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.

For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.

At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.

From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.

She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.

Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.

She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.

Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.

John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.

“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.

“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”

“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”

“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.

William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”

As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”

She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.

“I don’t want to, mother.”

Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”

John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.

“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”

“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.

And so they were.

***

This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.

As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”

Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!

After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.

By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.

Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!