Staggering Steps

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Beginnings)

On Monday I posted the first part of my new short story, which featured a character assigned a mission to carry out on a distant world. Amidst feelings of fear and doubt she transported down to that world, and her concerns were suspended by the novelty of the new terrain that she found. During this exploration she noticed a strange phenomena in the distance, and a journey to that location resulted in her meeting a new character. Finally, her discussion with that new character brought back up the assignment that she was assigned at the very beginning, and along with it all of her apprehensions.

In this way her objective remained an ever-present motivation of the story, even while I introduced other new ideas, characters, and places that will also be of importance. This  way of introducing new plot and having it naturally return to your main arc is incredibly useful when you have a great many elements to introduce to the reader.

Think of the beginning of any story, where the reader has to be made aware of the characters, events, society, balance of power, driving motivations, and any mechanics unique to your story. You can’t just dump all of that on them up front with a fact-sheet, you need to drip it out piece by piece. But, while trickling out these new elements of your story you must not get totally lost in their side-plots, the core arc of your story must always be present.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roverandom we begin simply enough with a small dog and a wizard. The former upsets the latter and is turned into a toy as a result. This simple beginning establishes two of the main characters, the fact that there is magic in this story, and the dog’s great motivation: to become a real dog again.

There then begins one sequential plot after another, including trips up to the moon and down into the ocean. There are new mechanics and new characters added at a measured pace, making sure that the story never becomes overwhelming but also doesn’t grow stale. Each of these side-plots and characters never strays far from the main thrust of the story, either. Each eventually circles back to our dog’s core objective of undoing the spell he is under.

 

Converging Plotlines)

In fact, several of the side-plots in Roverandom end up being integral to the resolution of the story’s main plot. Two plots featuring different kind caretakers that Roverandom is divided in his loyalty between blend together when an unexpected relation between the two is revealed. A side-trip to the bottom of the ocean becomes essential to softening the older wizard’s heart so that eventually he will free the dog from his curse.

These different plotlines dovetailing together towards a singular whole provides a pleasant and balanced feel to the story. It makes the ending more impressive because it is only achieved by the sum of so many other parts. And so juggling between different arcs is not only beneficial at the beginning of the story, but also in bringing the whole to a satisfying close.

Of course the intro I published for With the Beast did not include the end of that novel, but it did introduce two seemingly disparate arcs. First there is one where the reader has evidently come to witness, and even to enact, some tragic destruction. The exact nature of that destruction is unclear, but its imminence looms heavy over the story’s tone. At the same time we are also being introduced to a family of four that are seeking their destiny, hoping to build a magnificent legacy on their own personal island.

These two themes stand in stark contrast to one another, and there is a strong implication that the two are going to come together in conflict. Indeed, that is the case. Throughout the rest of the story each arc will progress in greater and greater contrast such that neither narrative arc can come to their natural conclusion so long as the other remains. They therefore will break upon one another in a climatic finale.

 

Pace)

But this idea of side-stepping between multiple plotlines is by no means limited to just the beginning or ending of a story. It also happens to be one of the best tricks for keeping the pace up in the middle of a tale. Most plots are naturally most exciting at their beginnings and at their endings, and it’s all too easy to lose a reader in the central chapters that bridge between the two.

But if the middle of one arc is paired with the beginning of another arc, then the overall experience still remains fresh. Or if the middle of the arc is paired with the climatic ending of a previous arc, then the overall experience still remains exciting.

Now there is no shortage of examples of this. Just consider the many television serials on the air today. Of course there are series where every episode is its own self-contained plot, such as with the Twilight Zone, but the ones that tell an ongoing tale need to both provide a small conclusion at the end of each episode, but also maintain an ongoing arc that extends beyond itself. Side characters will suddenly come to the forefront, new revelations will upend previous plotlines, and earlier arcs will be brought to their close.

Consider the mini-series Roots, which is a multigenerational tale of African slaves in America. As each rising generation is going to become the focus of the next episode, the series spends time establishing them with the audience even before resolving the current generation’s arc. By the time we see the end of Kunta Kinte’s story we’re already well-invested in the ongoing struggles of his daughter Kizzy.

Recently the work on my With the Beast novel hit a wall where all of its momentum suddenly seemed to evaporate. As I looked closer I realized that I was right in the middle of the tale, and I was bringing all of my introductory plotlines to a close before beginning any of the arcs for the latter half. As you might imagine, it felt like the story was finishing halfway through, and the entire pace had come to a screeching halt. Now I’m stagger out some of those arcs so that there remains an unbroken chain from start to end.

I also experimented with this in miniscule when I posted The Heart of Something Wild. Here I began with a plot about a new chief facing his impending demise. I spent some time on his fears and anxiety, but then introduced a new plot when he began caring for a wounded creature. That plot took the forefront until a new wrinkle was introduced by his closest friendship coming to an end. That falling out simultaneously began another arc for the conflict he now had with that former ally. Already plots were being picked up and dropped with no down time in between, and this was all before the story was half over!

 

Like I mentioned at the beginning, my new short story Glimmer has staggered its central arc of the main character’s sacrifice with that of discovering a new world and its inhabitants. With my next entry the story will further evolve with the emergence of a new enemy and, and an introduction to the souls that lie in the balance of that ensuing struggle. Then, a week later we will have the third and final section of that story, which will feature all of these separate threads finding their various resolutions in one another. I’ll see you then.

Core Needs

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This last Thursday I posted a short, simple story about a father and son who were experiencing a moment of frustration and exhaustion. Each was tired of their shared struggle, and each had their own idea of what it was they needed in order to be happy. For the son, Teddy, he felt he needed to have his nasogastric tube removed and thus be relieved from his constant soreness and discomfort. The father, Christopher, needed Teddy to understand why it was important for the tube to remain, and thus continue enduring all of that soreness and discomfort.

It should be immediately apparent that these two needs were incompatible with each other. For either to be met would mean to deny the other one. As such the two characters found themselves not only struggling with the situation but with one another, trying to convince the other to give way. Neither was successful.

Fortunately for these two characters, neither of their supposed needs were what they truly needed. Beneath the surface there were deeper core needs, and eventually each of the characters stumbled upon them. In reality it was Teddy who needed his father to understand him. Teddy didn’t need the pain to be taken away, he just needed someone to appreciate how great that pain really was. He needed to be validated and heard. Christopher, meanwhile, really needed to process his own guilt and express sorrow for it. Perhaps it is irrational for a father to feel guilty when a child feels ill, and yet emotions don’t have to be rational to be real. Valid or not, Christopher needed to acknowledged that he did indeed feel that way and get those thoughts of inadequacy of his chest.

These core desires, happily, were not so incompatible with one another. Teddy cried and his father empathized with him. This had the dual effect of Teddy feeling heard, while amplifying Christopher’s sense of guilt to the point that he could recognize and voice it. Both characters grew, and more importantly they grew together.

This idea of characters thinking they need one thing, and then discovering that deep down they really needed something else is not a new notion by any means. It’s a concept that finds its roots in actual life experience. Hopefully each one of us has had those experiences of finally understanding the reasons and motivators behind the strange things that we do. Suddenly behavior that seemed to us random or without purpose, now is recognized as being driven by a basic inner need. No wonder, that authors have sought to recreate such poignant moments of epiphany in their stories.

Consider the tale of The Bishop’s Wife. Or maybe the tale of Mary Poppins. If you think about it, these are actually the exact same story, just with two different coats of paint. In each we begin with a father, one who is busy with his important business and civic duties. They are both proud and hard working, but each has a problem as well. In the case of The Bishop’s Wife it is that he doesn’t have enough money to build the church he dreams of, and in Mary Poppins it is that he needs someone to care for his children and keep them out of his hair.

In each story the father petitions for help, one through prayer and another through an advertisement. Each is looking for help in obtaining what they need. An assistant comes to each, one in the form of an angel and the other as a nanny. Both fathers are appalled to find that these assistants are not what they were hoping for at all! Rather than having their problems being solved they are instead compounded, weighing down on both men’s “important” work until at last something breaks and they reach their low point of the story.

It is only at this point where dreams have been lost that the two men are able to recognize what truly matters to them: their families. Suddenly their initial needs don’t seem like real needs anymore, just wants. Each story ends happily as they realize that they have had the power all along to give themselves that which is really important.

It might be tempting to scoff at the fathers in these stories being so misguided with their priorities in life. We would think that we all would know exactly what it was we needed in life, but in reality this is rarely the case. Our intuition will usually lead us correctly, but the challenge is in even knowing which of the many influences that drive us is that same voice of pure intuition. Whenever we have particularly strong wants or fears, those signals can often override the quieter, calmer voice deep within.

Sometimes we may even receive the answers to our deeper needs, feel better because of it, and still not recognize what just happened! There is a film I like which illustrates this very well. It is called The Way, and it tells of a group of four strangers who meet along the Camino de Santiago, a route of Catholic pilgrimage. Each of these four has come to this pilgrimage for a specific need in life. One is to quit smoking, another is to lose weight, another is to get past writer’s block. These are obviously very external, very surface needs. Eventually the crew reach their destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and having fulfilled their pilgrimage conclude that none of them have experienced the miraculous changes that they had hoped for. The smoker still smokes, the overweight man still likes fatty foods. They laugh at their naïvety, and then wander off in their separate ways.

However the attentive viewer will realize that the story is actually not being cynical at all. Though they did not receive the desire that they had voiced, each of them did, in fact, receive something that they needed even more. Things such as obtaining a friendship, a connection to a higher power, and the beginning of understanding one’s place in the world. None of this is ever called out explicitly, and I commend the film for its subtlety on the matter. It feels more authentic because of it.

Watching this film taught me a fascinating lesson about how stories can feature main characters which are motivated by core needs that not even they understand. It is the same for us in real life.

Often we do not realize we are ill until we have symptoms, and then we wish the symptoms away when really we need to be cured of the illness at our core. Then the symptoms will resolve themselves. Surface flaws like a smoking addiction and being overweight are unpleasant and it is natural to wish them away. But they will never leave us until we under the root causes beneath them, and address those instead. It may be that are psyche feels it needs these flaws to relieve guilt or anxiety. It is those deeper sensations of guilt and anxiety, then, that we need to find answers to before we can move forward.

On Thursday I will be presenting a story that is built entirely around a character and his needs. He will have surface needs that he recognizes, core needs that he does not, deep-seated self-doubts that confuse him, and moments of epiphany which he only partially comprehends. Also, in the spirit of the season it will be a story focused around giving and the reviving of the soul. I hope to see you then.