Play it Again

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Photo by Stas Knop on

It Sounded Different the First Time)

There is a classic folk rock song called Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and every time I hear it I have a lot of emotions stirred up inside me. The structure of the song is a story told through a series of snapshots, with the chorus being repeated between each chapter/verse. The person singing tells the part of a father who is so busy with business that he misses the birth and first steps of his own son. At the time he affirms that they will have time together someday, and takes comfort in the fact that his son is destined to be just like him. The same pattern repeats when the son is ten, and wants to play catch, but the dad is again too busy.

At this point the song takes a turn. The next snapshot is that of the boy having just graduated from college. The father is so proud of him, and wants to talk to him, but all the boy wants is the keys to the car. There will be time to catch up later, after all. And then comes the final chapter, where the father is now retired and has a bounty of time on his hands. He calls his son, expressing his desire to connect, and the now-adult son affirms his own desire to do so as well…if he could just find the time. And then the father realizes that the boy really did grow up to be just like him.

It is an emotional story all on its own, but the format of telling it through a song allows Harry Chapin to drive its themes even more deeply into the heart. Because, after all, songs have choruses and repeated lyrics, which Chapin cleverly utilizes to reinstate prior ideas, and even twist them.

Thus the the line

He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, dad”
“You know I’m gonna be like you”

in the first verse is full of pride and anticipation. It is the father relishing a son that will emanate all of his virtues. But when it returns at the end as

He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

it is overflowing with regret. It is the father realizing that his son instead inherited all of his flaws.  And Chapin doesn’t have to spell things out for us in a blunt or heavy-handed way, he just repeats the same line under a new context, and the irony hits us like a ton of bricks.

Echoes of the Past)

This sort of repeated statement is utilized multiple times in the musical rendition of Les Miserables. An idea is sung in one song, and then later returns in another. However these restatements are not only used to twist an idea into something ironic, sometimes they are to give a fuller, more reinforced weight to the same idea.

Consider the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, in which the protagonist struggles to accept the grace that is being offered him. The cynicism in him says that there is too much hurt and sin in him to ever change, yet even so he feels the pull to be a new man. He concludes this song with the following words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin

And so he concludes the life of a sinner and begins a new journey as a saint. It would already have been a powerful moment if left in isolation, but later it gets doubled down on by Javert. Javert is the man who has absolutely refused to let go of Valjean’s old sins. He feels a great need to prove that Valjean’s “new leaf” is nothing more than a con-artist sham. Javert is the embodiment of that same cynicism Valjean once held for himself, that there is too much sin for one to truly change.

But then, finally, Valjean manages to convince Javert. He has the opportunity to kill his old tormentor…and he sets him free instead. In the face of this Javert has to accept the reality that he is wrong. Valjean is not the scheming blackheart that Javert has tried to cast him as. This brings us to Javert’s Soliloquy, which ends in these words:

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

And so he concludes the life of a condemner, and throws himself into the Seine. Just like the segment from Valjean, but twisted to condemnation instead of salvation. The reborn Valjean is simply too expansive a presence for pessimists and abusers to share in his world. His rise requires all the others to disappear into the shadows one way or the other, and the musical makes this message crystal clear by repeating its ideas under different contexts.

The Perfect Storm)

In my most recent story I also tried to implement repeated statements for amplified effect. My approach, however, was to create three different statements, one for each of my characters, which were then each repeated together at the end of the tale. Thus the final scene does not present any ideas that weren’t already given before, it just stacks them all together until they become an overwhelming chorus.

In Bartholomew we saw that he was pulling on his shipmates’ strings, goading them into violence when he provoked Julian into lashing out. That was immediately followed by us seeing how Julian was unafraid to resort to violence to silence his enemies and cover his sins. That was followed by us seeing how Captain Molley was reaching the limits of his temper, champing to execute his justice on Julian.

Each of those moments overlapped only briefly, but then, in the final moments, Bartholomew goads Julian into choosing sides, Julian feels himself teetering back towards violence, and Captain Molley starts poking old wounds rather than pacifying the situation. Every isolated voice is now reinforced by the others, and so the climatic fallout at last occurs.

With my next story I am going to take this tool of restating in a different way. I am going to try and replicate the example in Cat’s in the Cradle and Les Miserables, where an actual line is repeated verbatim (or close to verbatim), but under different contexts that give it entirely different meaning. But the two different meanings combine to make one, reinforced idea together. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

So Dark and Edgy

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Photo by Elti Meshau on

This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.

Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.

I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.

And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?


Why Include Violence)

We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?

I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.

All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.

We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.

I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.

But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.


Levels of Conflict)

This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.

Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.

Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.


Maintaining Proper Focus)

Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.

I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.

Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?

It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.

So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?

My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.

In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.


An Important Lesson

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Why do we make stories? That’s an open-ended question, of course, given that the potential answers to it are legion, ranging anywhere from making a living to leaving a legacy to I-was-just-bored-and-needed-something-to-do. Even in the course of making a single story the reasons for doing so may change several times. When I first started sharing bedtime stories with my son, the only motivation was just trying something new to help him relax and get sleepy. My decision to continue with it, though, evolved into trying to engage him with important life lessons.

I want to promise that there are wonderful worlds out there waiting for him to explore them. I want to impress on him that there are dangers out there, too, which he needs to be wary of. I want to reassure him that he is a wonderful boy of infinite worth and always will be. Certainly I can and do tell him these things plainly and directly throughout the day, but I’ve come to appreciate that these concepts last longer in the mind when reinforced with a good story. We love to learn by analogy, and fictional stories and events can ring more deeply with our cores than any other communication.

I am by no means the first person to realize the great power of stories in teaching lessons and conveying messages. This purpose for creating them seems to be both ancient and universal, perhaps the most prevalent answer to the question I opened this blog with. There can be found samplings of moral tales from every region of every time in the world. There are Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights, Russian bylinas, African myths, Aesop’s Fables, Chinese proverbs, Christian parables, and more. Many of these were written without knowledge of the others, suggesting there is something inherent in our humanity that seeks to preserve important wisdoms in the form of stories.

And which of us today wouldn’t want to communicate something of meaning and importance in our own stories, too? That might be easier said than done, but it is a distinction most authors hope to achieve. Do I really have the right to ask people to give me their time and attention unless I have something important to say?

Of course, to be able to say something important means you have to know something important, and then you have to be able to communicate that important something effectively. That first part might seem the harder ask, but really I think it is the simpler of the two. If we are willing to set aside our false modesty and go through a little introspection, I’m convinced each one of us will find that we have a nugget of real value that we could share with the world. This is part of our human condition. We live, we learn, we internalize, and do so in a way that is unique to our character. If you dig down in your heart, you’ll find an important lesson or two locked up inside. Now comes the second bit, the actual communicating of that kernel of wisdom. This part is tricky, and it’s entirely possible that the would-be author might not yet have the skills necessary to give voice to those insights. Please don’t take that as a discouragement, though, the way is there for any who are willing to try. It is simply a matter of putting in the work and practice, and there are a few techniques that can help you along the way.


First off, what is a kernel of wisdom anyway? The definition I find most helpful is it is a truth. It is a principle. It is universal. It is a constant that any reader in any situation will be able to find a place for in their own lives. Our actual situations and events are periphery and context that can change, but the principles at their core remain the same.

James’ neighbor asked if it was his baseball that broke his window, and he honestly admitted that it was, offering to help fix it.

James’ drunk father asked if he was the one that broke the television set, and he dishonestly said ‘yes’ so that his little brother wouldn’t get hit.

At first these scenarios seem like complete opposites, yet at the core of each is the same kernel, one of using the truth (or lack thereof) as a tool for taking a burden. If you think you have found something of significance to say, but want to be sure of its merit, try giving it this litmus test: does it apply universally? Anything that does is worthy of a story.


Now one of the tricky things about these little wisdoms we have is that they can resist the written medium. These are not events that can be laid out in a chronology, nor are they a dialogue that can spoken. These vague concepts tend to be things we are better able to feel than put words to. Sometimes the best way we have to express them is in recounting the entire experience where we discovered them, which of course, already presents the concept within a story form.

My mother passed away and I felt a gaping hole left in my heart. More than anything I just wanted to hear her voice again, to hear her tell me that I was still her son and she loved me. One night I dreamt she was alive, but I had traveled away to a different country. In the dream I again had that desire for her to call me her son and say that she loved me, but I realized it was alright even if she didn’t. I knew she was still thinking those thoughts away where she was, and that was enough. When I woke up, it was the same.

There’s something poignant in this, but it can be difficult to extract the core and transplant it into another story. Generally I think when we try to express this sensation it gets reduced down to something like “your loved ones are always with you in your heart,” although I do feel something gets lost in that translation. Perhaps you might not ever be able to reduce the concept you wish to convey into a succinct sentence, but you still need to become thoroughly familiar with it. Then you will be able to look over what you have written and know whether it evokes the intended feeling, or diluted it.


Have you noticed that each of the miniature story examples I’ve given have opened with a lifelike quandary, one similar to what a reader might face, after which the principle reveals itself to give the solution to that problem? If you want a blueprint for how to build a story around the principle you want to teach, you can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true method. It’s been kicking around the narrative world for at least a couple millennia and still remains relevant.

Problem: the tortoise is slower than the hare. Solution: the tortoise remains consistent and steady.

Problem: Simba runs from the past and his guilt. Solution: Mufasa helps Simba to remember who he is, the son of a noble king.

Problem: Arjuna is conflicted about going to war and the losses it will entail. Solution: Krishna teaches Arjuna to let go of worldly attachment and just pursue the greater good.

The thing about principles and truths is that when you live without them, problems come up in life. You feel like you aren’t progressing towards your goals as quickly as you wish, or you feel burdened by shame and think yourself worthless, or you feel directionless with no clear path to follow. But then, when you find truths and principles, they free you from the problems you faced. When a story follows this pattern, it is merely reflecting back to the reader shades of real life and will therefore resonate.


One burden you don’t need to worry too much about is if your audience will “get the point” of the message you have embedded into your story. It can be tempting to try and spell it all out, but doing so denies them the opportunity to tease out the lesson on their own, which will give them the longer lasting impression. In fact, it’s not necessary for your message to be consciously comprehended at any point in the telling. As I suggested before, many of our life lessons do not come to us written in fortune-cookie sentences, but rather in an experience that elicits an emotion. If your story does nothing more than to replicate that emotional experience in another, then the message has successfully been taught. For this reason, lessons can be incorporated into stories for any age. Perhaps my toddler son doesn’t know how to put the words to the principles I am trying to share with him, but if I do my job right then he’ll naturally internalize them based off the feelings he felt, and they will guide him just the same.

There’s another reason why you don’t need to worry about whether or not the audience is capable of receiving your message, but for this one you’ll have to let go of any sense of ownership you thought you had. Because, you see, the reader already knows whatever it is you’re trying to share, and you’re not going to give to them anything they don’t already have. That’s just the way principles work. All of the universal truths already exist inside each one of us, and we do not need anyone to tell us what they are. What we do need is someone to remind us of them when we have forgotten them, to awaken the parts of us that have always been present, but asleep. A truly profound story is one that resonates, and it resonates because it has attuned itself to the message that is already in the heart.


Finally, I think it’s important to address a question that might be nagging some of you right now. What if the author is just looking to write something mindless and fun? Does every story have to have a message? Quite frankly, I would say yes. The reason being that even if you don’t intend to put a message into your story, one will be there anyhow. It’s unavoidable. There never has been a story told that didn’t have a message, and your story, too, will suggest something about the world, whether for better or worse, whether honest or deceitful. As such, there are plenty of “mindless” flicks and novels out there that are laden with unintended and irresponsible messages such as “the only way for a hero to resolve a dispute is through violence,” or “a woman might be tough, but she could never be a match a real man,” or “it’s okay to be a bad person, so long as you’re funny at the same time.” Given that your story will be saying something, isn’t it worth ensuring that it is a something you believe in and that will be good for the world to hear? There’s nothing wrong in perusing your story ideas and taking a fun one out for a ride, but just drive responsibly and be sure you go somewhere good with it.


As I said earlier, I think all of us want to be able to take some of our inner light and put something important into our stories. I would go further still, and say that as a writer it is, in fact, your duty to use that skill to make the world a little brighter. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the very fact that it is difficult is what makes it a worthy quest.  Best of luck, and I hope to see you on Thursday when I introduce a couple more Phillip the Mouse stories, each that I told to my son as an effort to resonate some life lessons to his heart. Until then.