The Writing Game

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This Thursday I’ll be posting the final section of The Storm. Every new story is different and provides its own unique challenges, but I have found that this one has especially so. Because, you see, I’ve actually had the idea for this story for a few years now, but I never intended to have it be read in this manner. I intended for it to be played as a video game.

On the surface, I get that The Storm might not seem like the sort of story you would expect to see in a video game. When one hears the term “video game” they tend to think of titles like Call of Duty, Mario, or Fifa, things that have nothing in common with a moody trip into the sea to rescue a lost fisherman.

And yet a video game can really be all sorts of things. At its heart a video game is simply a digital and interactive piece of entertainment. Under that broad umbrella there are all manner of narrative-rich opportunities, and there are some wonderful titles that are bravely exploring the possibilities there. Here as some of my favorite video games, I’ll bet they are ones you’ve never heard of.

 

Some Favorite Games)

That Dragon Cancer is an interactive set of vignettes that seeks to capture the experience of parents watching a young son slowly lose his fight with cancer. It isn’t a work of fiction, the game was developed by the actual husband-and-wife who went through this ordeal. As heart-breaking as a book or a video documentary of these moments would still be, I believe the interactive nature of their story makes it resonate all the more deeply with the player.

For example, one of the most tragically potent moment comes where you play as the father trying to calm his son during a sleepless night in the hospital. The child is beset by all manner of agonizing symptoms, and you are given a very classic video game trope: find the item that solves the problem. As you scramble around the small room and try one distraction after another the reality of the moment slowly sets in. You finally understand that the magical cure-all is not present. Like an avid gamer, all the parents wanted was to fix the problem and move on to the next chapter of life. But unlike a game, real life doesn’t always have such tidy resolutions.

Another excellent game is Dear Esther. In this one you simply walk about an abandoned island for a couple of hours, triggering some beautifully rich dialogue at various points. Those bits of dialogue seem to be snippets from four different stories, each with similar themes at their core. While the exact details of each never come to full light, the overarching tones of loss, regret, but never-ending commitment come through quite clearly. Now certainly evocative text in a novel can help to set the mood of the story, but in this game that mood is baked into every single moment without a single word. The player is able to directly see the somber seaside evening with its gray skies, billowing wind, shaded ruins, and cawing gulls. Even mechanical decisions like the measured pace of movement helps further to achieve a sense of presence that words alone could not have.

If those last two games sound too somber then how about To the Moon? Now to be fair, this game also has its moments of sadness, but only so that its triumphant finale can be given a proper catharsis. In this game you play as agents from a futuristic firm that is able to modify a patient’s memories, and thus let them live out their wildest dreams. Their current patient is an old man on death’s bed, whose last wish is to go to the moon. The problem is he doesn’t know why he wants that, just that he does. Knowing the root of that desire is essential to the agents’ work, and so they began to delve into his memories to find the secret locked inside. That revelation, and all that follows, is some of the most poignant and sweet storytelling I know of, all the more so because of the active engagement I had with it.

 

Original Idea for The Storm)

Alright then, but how about The Storm? How did I conceive of that one as a game? What do I feel is lost by having it written out as a short story? What do I feel is gained?

The entire experience was only intended to last about an hour or two. Players would be able to swap between two views, one looking at the entire boat from behind, and another at the helm from Oscar’s perspective. Controls would have been an absolute minimal, players would be able to use simple controls for steering their vessel, operating their radio, and controlling their gantry.

Immediately after being shown how to work each piece of equipment they would have received Sam’s signal directing them to go in search of a lost fisherman around a protrusion in the shoreline. The journey there would have been uneventful, except for that the water around the player would get increasingly choppy and the skies more gray. The audio would have been primarily taken up with the howl of the wind and  the occasional somber chord played on strings or piano.

The player would find the boat in question, be able to communicate with it, and follow promptings to begin towing it. The journey back to the docks would now become quite daunting. The player’s controls would intentionally feel slow and imprecise. They would be at risk of tipping over if they turned broadside to a wave, and they would start to see their boat sinking if they stayed out in the storm for too long. Any failure event like these would simply reload them at a recent checkpoint, to prevent the experience from becoming too grueling.

Harry would still speak to your character over the radio, and still give all the same revelations that are coming in the second half of the story. The player would never be told this, but as they do have access to all of the controls for the gantry, they could at any time release Harry and leave him to his fate. They could even at the start of the game refuse to go out looking for Harry and just move into their berth at the docks. Or perhaps they could venture halfway to the rescue, then turning about because it was too dangerous for them.

The game would allow for all of these options, and each one would change Sam and Harry’s dialogues to acknowledge the player’s decisions. In the end all the player has to do to trigger the game’s conclusion is land their boat on or around the docks.

 

Differences Between the Game and the Short Story)

The main difference between the game version and this short story version is that in the game Oscar would hardly ever speak. He would acknowledge when he had received a message, he would be able to call into his radio when searching for Harry, and he would suggest to the player the towing strategy for getting Harry back home. Everything else communicated would be driven by the other characters.

That isn’t to say that Oscar wouldn’t have a character, but rather that his character would be the player. This is the most powerful and unique narrative construct available to games. This is the reason why the player would have the power to save or abandon Harry. The game would have the same freedom of a choose-your-own-adventure story, but without the awkwardness of calling out specific moments of decision.

In this short story version the greatest change I had to make was coming up with Oscar’s character. Now he needed to have his own identity, and he needed to follow a single path. Whereas the game would have been structured to help the player learn something about themselves after hearing Harry’s revelation, the short story is for letting the player learn something about Oscar.

In the end I think there is real value to both approaches. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Oscar from writing him, but I also think there was a lot to like about the player getting to make their own decisions.

The other main difference is that rather than crafting a mood visually from the game screen, now I have to paint the scenery with my words.

In conclusion I think there is value to both approaches. Each comes with their own pros and cons. Certainly with the advent of film we have seen many stories that were originally written experiences translated into a more visual medium. I do believe that certain stories should be told in one specific medium or another, but that many of them might reveal new opportunities by being re-conceived on such a fundamental level.

In any case I hope this peek behind the curtain was interesting for you. I’ll be posting the second half of The Storm on Thursday. As you read through it, try to ask yourself how this experience might be changed if you were playing through it as a game.

Update on My Novel: Month 0

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Yesterday I announced that I was going to be bringing back the Story of the Storyteller series, though it is being repurposed to chronicle the progress on my novel. I have mentioned this novel in previous posts, I have even shared the intro from it. But in case you weren’t aware, it is entitled With the Beast, and is set on an island which a small family has just inherited. That family comes to the island with the ambition of founding their legacy, building something that will be remarkable and enduring.

I guess if I were to compare it to any other stories I would say it’s something like Swiss Family Robinson combined with Little House in the Big Woods. However there is also a strong sense of menace to it, as the narrator of the story suggests that these are events which already transpired, ones which will conclude with his coming and destroying everyone and everything.

This story is one I have had in mind since about 2014. I have worked at it on and off throughout the years, trying to get the outline just right. That outline has changed a great deal with each iteration, most notably shifting from pure horror to something more hopeful. It wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I made up my mind for how I want the story to end.

But as iteration after iteration goes by I have realized that I am in a never-ending cycle of plotting and outlining and refactoring, such that I will never actually get the thing written if I don’t start penning my first draft now! I have a general outline for the entire story, and a very detailed one written out for the first third.

I would like to extend that detailed outline to the end of the story, but feel I can also start writing “draft one” as I do so. To that end I have committed to outlining two scenes each day, and also writing 500 words. Yesterday I accomplished that, and today I will accomplish that. In a month I’ll give you an update on my progress, and then share about whatever lessons or insights I gained in the process.

It’s going to be a long journey, but I’m very excited for it!

Washed Ashore

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The surf did not break across the shore all at the same moment, but rather rippled down its length in a long, drawn-out rush. This was due to how the sandy beach was laid out at an angle to the flow of the tide. And so the waves sounded on the North-Western tip first, then worked their way South and East, where at last they rolled off in a curling white froth. Many the fish was caught in that circling current, and some of the weaker ones were unable to break free of it. They would die in its churning, then be deposited on the cold, wet sand when the tide drew back again.

It was a freshwater coast, and the white sand was dotted here and there with various bits of brown scrub and green needle-grass. About twenty yards back from the waterline the sand gave way to a more muddy carpet, and small gray crabs dug little burrows in that clay. The entire stretch of beach was backed by the black, porous bluffs that rose high above the scene. Sheer walls that were perpetually driven back by a continual process of erosion.

As that rock wall receded it left large, boulder deposits on the ground, sentinels that then crumbled to bits in slow motion. While they still stood their porous surfaces were turned into a thousand miniature lakes, each hole filled by the spray from the sea and then crowned by a ring of lichen. They all bore a head of hair as well, long, slick, green blades of grass that grew wild and unkempt, the same as could be found atop the bluffs.

The sky was perpetually gray, an endless stream of clouds ever passing over with no break to indicate where one ended and the next began. Winds frequently buffeted the small island, and rain flowed most days of the year. Not in torrents, usually, but in a constant drizzly weeping.

During the drier months the occasional gull would chance the voyage out to the island from some distant origin. It was a long and tempestuous route for them, but those that managed it would gorge unrestrained on the crabs, relieved from the usual squabbling of their brethren.

Further inland the grassy knolls were sprinkled here and there with small houses. The people that lived here were decent, quiet folk, as one had to be to make a home in a place so humble and gray. They were absent any ambition, and only worked the land for their own subsistence, never trying to raise a profit from its depths. All they wished was to enjoy the quiet tranquility, and the perpetual washing from the weeping rains.

Aside from their homes they had built only two other edifices for public communion. One was a church, whitewashed and prominent, with imported oak for the doors and the pews. It was at least five times too large for the small population of the island, but it had seemed disrespectful to make a place of worship that was too small. Each Saturday they all fastidiously cleaned it, and so it was the tidiest of any structure in town. As they felt it should be.

The other edifice was a pub. It was a long, low building, illuminated by orange lanterns without but left dark and smoky within. No one came here in a hurry, and every towns-person had their own seat for the long evening hours they whiled away within. One-by-one they came after the day’s work was done, and one-by-one they left at their preferred time for “turning in.” Unless, of course, there happened to be any visitors in the place, in which case they might stay as late as 2 or 3 in the morning.

These visitors were usually some fishermen who had stopped to make repairs on their vessel, and every now and again they some city-minded pilgrim would arrive after becoming hopelessly lost in the sea, seeking directions back home. More rarely, perhaps once every few years, an uncharacteristically powerful storm would arise, and then all of the nearby ships would be driven towards their refuge, skirting in like so many giant gooses caught in a gale.

It was the morning following one such of these storms, still much too early for the island to have fully awoken. Down on the soaking shore a dark form washed up, a mass of tangled clothes, sopping hair, and pale skin. The man coughed and his fingers clawed at the sand, but his eyes remained stubbornly clenched. The next wave came and engulfed him, and he sputtered a torrent of water from his mouth after it had receded. Instinctively he crawled on his belly a few feet further ashore.

He was a young man, surely no more than thirty. Yet the gaunt expression in his face aged him prematurely. His eyes were naturally sunk in deep, and seemingly all the more so with how his long, pointed nose extended out between them. Around the edges of his eyes was a scrawl of wrinkles, ones that extended uncharacteristically out and downwards, tracing onto the tops of his cheeks.

The man huddled his bony knees up to his chest, trying in vain to find some warmth as an easterly wind blew across in fitful gusts. Each of these breaths stirred him closer and closer to consciousness, until at last his eyelids slowly rolled back. His vacant eyes peered out unseeing, the focus slowly settled in, and at last the pupils lazily rotated to survey the scene about him.

He perceived the sand, the water, the wind, but all was strange and unfamiliar to him. His mind started working, trying to trace back where he was and why. What was the last that had happened to him?

He suddenly recollected all and tried to sit bolt upright. He barely made it halfway before he collapsed back on his side. He palmed his forehead, trying to ease the throbbing in his skull. After a minute had passed he tried to raise himself again, this time more slowly and cautiously. He winced as he dug his palm into the sand, propping himself up on that arm, and peering out into the wild sea. He scanned his eyes left and right, searching and searching again for some shape on the horizon.

He saw nothing, and with that blessed omission his mouth cracked open in a smile and a small laugh of relief escaped his aching chest. The wheezing chuckle passed, and it was immediately followed by one deeper and fuller. He clapped his hands in front of his nose and pressed his thumbs against his forehead, heavy sobs now mingling with the laughter, and eventually taking them over. His whole body shook as the moment of relief allowed himself to truly appreciate the trauma of his flight.

Could it truly be over? he wondered. After so long, so hard a chase? No matter. Time would heal all wounds, erase the memory of what had been. All that was relevant now was that the sea was empty, there was no more ship to be seen anywhere. It must have sunk, and taken with it all the men aboard. All but him. Such a terrible cost, indeed, but necessary. May a few dozen innocents die that the one great evil may be purged, and call yourself blessed that somehow you escaped the froth.

As his head bowed under the weight of his emotions he failed to notice the dark figure of another body washing ashore, some thirty yards from where he lay. That man was as motionless as the dead, though, and did not stir at all as the water continued to smother him with every wave.

At last the first man finished his heaving sobs and began to see about getting up on his feet. It was no small task, and he found that he would have to rub some life back into his legs before they would function properly for him. It was while he was in the process of this that he happened to look about him, and at last he saw the other man lying down-shore.

“Oh no,” he whimpered, his slight frame crumpling at the sight. The other man was  dressed in fine, black clothes, or rather clothes that had been fine before the sea had so bedraggled them. Over them was a rich, red vest, with some stitching that suggested a station of some sort. His hair was blond and close-cropped, his mustache was carefully trimmed.

The first man stared long and hard at his quarry, and finally trembled less as he steeled himself for action. Probably the aggravator was already dead. It was better for the body to wash ashore in this way, now he would be able to know for sure. And if, by some curse, the hole in the other’s chest still beat, then better to end it now and be done with it. And so the first man began to crawl forward, his legs still acclimating to regular use.

That monster had to be dead. He had to be. It was miracle enough that one of them had survived, for both to have done so would be…would be a sign at that the gods had fated them to this infernal dance eternally. The thought made the man pause in his crawl, then he swallowed hard and continued.

Even if he felt no heartbeat in that body he might as well be sure of the deed. He’d open the man and stretch him out across the whole beach, pocketing only the heart, just to be sure it could never return to its master. Or perhaps he would dry the body out and grind it into a dust. He’d feed it to those crabs over yonder. He’d–

Of a sudden the second man lifted up on raised arms and gave a long, startled gasp, like a sleeping beast pierced in the dead of night. Immediately his head snapped to one side and his eyes locked on the nearing other. Those brows furrowed so deeply that they ran together as one, and he began to take long, sharp inhales, filling his lungs with biting, cold air and willing its energy to flow from thence to his limbs.

The first man recoiled in horror. Though he had been conscious longer, he knew he was not so well recovered as to overpower his adversary. And so he stumbled backwards. His feet had at long last discovering their strength in his terror, and so he rose and staggered away backwards.

That second man continued to hold himself on wobbling arms that ever grew more steady. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs, whistling around his clenched teeth, his face etched with a deep and hurtful desire. He seemed to breathe hate in with the air, using both to strengthen him. The second man could not continue to look at such a terrible sight. He turned, and sobbed bitterly as he ran away, wondering what the use of it was. Would it never stop? Would he never wake from the nightmare?

No. Evidently it was their fate to chase and flee forever. He would neither overcome nor escape his enemy, yet also he would never be overcome nor destroyed himself. Somehow he always managed to just barely escape his death, while countless other innocents perished in the wake of their clashing instead. It was his curse. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop and endure the agony and then sleep? Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker that way? More humane to the world? Maybe it would, but his courage failed him.

And so he ran, tears splashing around his feet as he went. Some for him. Some for the poor souls who chanced to live on this island, and would soon be swept away in the tide of violence.

 

My post on Monday was all about the mood of the story. My suggestion at the time was that it didn’t have as much to do with what you wrote as how you wrote it. For me the most difficult part of this piece was the very beginning, where I tried to first establish that mood, but once I found it the rest actually followed quite naturally.

One misstep I had at the beginning was that I originally began by talking about the villagers on the island. Right after I mentioned how the tide broke across the shore at an angle I wrote about how the locals had learned to listen to how long that breaking took, and from that extrapolate how many knots the wind was blowing at. I then said they would use that trick to impress the visitors at their cozy pub, whom they would then regale with stories.

It was a fine little detail, but it suddenly made the mood far too warm and pleasant. It made everything that followed lack that somber tone I was looking for. And so I cut it, and by the time I did get around to discussing the townspeople they were living under the tone already established by a muted gray beach, rather than the other way around.

Often that’s how it goes for me when establishing a mood. I have to ask  myself “does this feel right?” And if it doesn’t I try other things until I find the one that does. Then progress continues as normal.

There was another element of this story that I would like to look at in greater detail, that of the motivation. I was intentionally very sparse on specifics for why these two men are so irreconcilably opposed to one another, we just know that they are. But isn’t the classic question for an actor “what is my motivation?” Don’t characters always need reasons to do what they do? Well, to put it simply it’s not that simple. But let’s take a closer at all of that come Monday, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

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

aerial shot of ocean
Photo by Kyle Collins on Pexels.com

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!