Now You See Me

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I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena of human behavior at work this last little while. We’ve been hiring a lot of new employees and there seems to be a pattern where you only meet the new hire’s mask on their first day, and then the actual person a few weeks later.

This is a common social pattern, of course. When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we feel endangered. Perhaps not physically endangered, but socially endangered. We wish to protect ourselves by wearing a persona that we expect to be better received. For some that persona is more loud and confident than they really feel, for others it is more quiet and reserved. I fall into that latter category. When I start a new job or move to a new residence I hardly speak at all, then, after a few weeks I start to come out of my shell, crack jokes, and share about the things that really interest me.

It’s always interesting when meeting someone for the first time to wonder who they really are, and to look forward to eventually figuring that out. You might say you should never judge a book by its cover…. Pretty smooth segue, don’t you think 😉

In literature there are all manner of first impressions and later revelations. From the very first pages the reader is making first impressions of the story and themes as a whole, and also of the individual characters as they meet each one. But sometimes these first impressions don’t bear out through the rest of the story, and that can be both a good or a bad thing. Let’s look at both aspects.

 

The Story)

In a prior post I spoke of how a good opening can establish the tone of the narrative and also introduce the main arc that will carry the tale. But there is another aspect of a story’s opening that authors have to deal with, that of providing a hook, something that will convince the reader to forge past the first chapter all the way to the end. Opening your story with a mystery or a problem that is intriguing is how you convince the reader that your book is going to be worth their time.

The danger here, though, is that it is very easy to promise more than your story can deliver, as it is far easier to write a compelling beginning than a satisfying ending. Sadly there are many stories where strong characters, an interesting world, and a creative mechanic quickly establish an intriguing premise, but then just meander aimlessly to a weak conclusion. In this instance the story’s first chapter truly is a facade, one that looks impressive and suggests extravagant interiors, but behind is only enough lattice to make the story marketable.

I consider it poor taste to give specific examples of poorly crafted work, but I’m sure you can readily recall many such examples of this shortcoming on your own. Fortunately there are more positive examples we can consider, and one of my favorites is the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

By and large Doyle is a master of capturing intrigue at the outset of his tales and then delivering satisfaction by their close. His general template often involves a hook where Holmes is presented a baffling case, a recount of  the detective’s investigation, and finally gives a clever solution that neatly answers all that had seemed impossible.

Even more impressive is that Doyle realized his formula had become expected, and so he began to alter the pattern to surprise the reader with an even better ending than anticipated. The Adventure of the Yellow Face is my favorite example of this.

 

The Characters)

And then of course there are the individual characters of the story. In most cases a story’s characters are fully understood at all times. They may have arcs and changes, but at each moment they are telling you who they honestly are at that point. The heroes really are good, and the villains really are bad, and if a villain is going to transform into someone good or a hero into someone bad, all of these changes will be signaled well in advance. Thus nothing about them really catches us by surprise.

But although most characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, there are those that refuse to show you all of their cards until later in the game. These sudden reveals can come with powerful shifts in tone and perspective, and will certainly capture the audience’s attention.

Take special note, though: even if the author may not be foreshadowing this change and it comes as a surprise, still it must not feel random. If a character simply flips their entire personality at the drop of a hat then it just becomes ludicrous.

One of the central mysteries in the biopic Capote is whether Perry Smith is the murderous terror that the press has made him out to be. All throughout the film Perry maintains that he is more innocent than has been portrayed, and speaks in such a refined and sensitive manner that we have our misgivings to his guilt. And so this continues, right up to the point that he bluntly details how he carried out every one of the monstrous acts of which he has been accused.

The reason the scene lands so well is because as shocking as the revelation is, we still fully accept this new perspective of Perry. Perhaps the label of a raging monster did not fit with the quiet demeanor he portrayed, but that of a quiet monster does. We are able to accept this more encompassing perspective of sweetness laced with menace.

In the first section of The Heart of Something Wild I introduced three main characters and established their basic identities. In the second entry I intend to have a moment of transition where some of these roles will change, and the characters’ deeper natures will suddenly be revealed.

At the same time, though, I will need to ensure that the ending of the story remains satisfying, too. I cannot simply shake reader’s expectations loose to the point that they lose their capacity to care about the outcomes. I think it will be challenging to pull off, and I’m excited to give it a try. Come back on Thursday to see what I am able to make of it!

Phillip the Mouse: His Mask and Grandfather’s Kite

Phillip the Mouse and His Mask

One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.

Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.

Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.

“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.

“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.

“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.

“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.

Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”

“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”

“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”

“Always,” she said firmly.

Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”

And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.

Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite

One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling very confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.

All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.

Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.

SNAP!

The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.

As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.

***

It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.

This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.