With my last check-in a month ago I had a highly-detailed report of writing my novel for the month of May. I have no such report for June. Suffice it to say that June was the month where I burned out and didn’t write even a single word for more than half the days.
I might say that there are reasons for that: Summer vacation distractions, the natural ebb and flow of motivation, etc., but I wouldn’t be satisfied with such excuses. Because the idea is that I want to be writing my story regularly no matter what happens. Part of planning to do any great undertaking is planning how to do it even when things are hard. If I can only write during convenient periods, I’ll never get the darn thing finished.
Thankfully, I actually did make some plans for just such doldrums. It was these monthly reports. So long as I maintain these regular updates I’m unable to go too long before I take a long and hard look at my writing habits.
To that end I am recommitting to daily work on my blog, with the exception of three vacation days where I will most likely not have time for any personal projects. However I have decided not to commit to 500 words-per-day anymore. I noticed a trend where meeting that number was becoming more important than writing at a high-quality level. Maybe word-goals work for some people, but I think I will do better with a time commitment instead. That commitment will be 30 minutes-per day.
Thank you all for helping to keep me honest. I’m still hopeful for this project and look forward to letting you know how things are going one month from now.
“Add me to the next race,” Taki called out to the registrar, who was seated once more at a small desk and taking applications.
The man looked Taki over, noting the shredded suit barely still hanging onto his battered body.
“That race is in less than half an hour,” the man sniffed, ” and you don’t appear to be…ready.”
“I have my other suit being prepped right now,” Taki waved. “I’ll be ready to run.”
The registrar gave Taki another look-over, this time tabulating all of his scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. Taki got the impression the man didn’t like him very much, but had no doubt been instructed to maintain a very low bar to entry.
“Well then come back here when your other suit is ready to be scanned in. And in the meanwhile get yourself over to the medical tent.”
“Thank you, will do.” Taki strode back to Boro’s shack and deposited the shambles of his current suit, then went to the tent the registrar had referenced. There were no medics inside, this was only an Alley Tier raceway after all, but there were all the basic bandages and disinfectants, and any racer had free access to them. Taki started working on a particularly nasty gouge on his shoulder when he heard a step behind him at the tent’s entrance.
“Hello, Tala,” he nodded as he turned to face her.
“Are you looking forward to a grudge match?” she asked, eliciting a bewildered expression from him.
“What do you mean?”
“That runner who tried to throw you last race, you remember him? You grabbed him and hit the boost together.”
“Well he spun out hard after the boost and he’s been tailing you ever since you got off the spectator’s platform. Right after you signed up for the next race he did as well.”
“Could be a coincidence.”
“Sure,” she scoffed. “It could be.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for him.”
“I guess you’d better.”
There was a heavy pause, an awkwardness from Taki wanting to continue the conversation but not knowing quite how.
“Well, I better go help Boro if you want to get your suit in time for the next race. Good luck not dying out there spark plug!” Then she dashed away before he could say another word.
Spark plug? Was that supposed to be a good thing or not? It didn’t sound particularly flattering. Taki shook his head and tried to focus back on his work. All the adrenaline from the race was fading, and he was only now starting to realize how sore and tender he really felt. It was going to be a hard second race…especially if one of the runners had it in for him.
Well, that was how it was sometimes. One couldn’t wait for fair weather when all of life was a storm.
By the time Taki had himself patched up Boro was putting the final touches on the new suit. It was just as haphazard as the last, but Taki wasn’t so concerned about that anymore. Taki got into the outfit and clunked his way over to the starting drop for the next race. There were seven other racers there, one of which was in the same green suit as the racer Tala had warned him of. That racer’s mask was tinted, so that Taki could not see his expressions. In any case Taki thought it a good idea to position himself as far from that racer as possible, then he looked down at the track beneath them.
As always, the track had been changed between races. Each of the various components that made up the raceway were either on moving arms or else fitted with small thrusters, allowing for an architect to craft a new experience each time.
The change to the track for this race wasn’t particularly interesting. Really it just looked like some giant had shaken the whole track, jumbling the pieces around in a random fashion.
Perhaps the one thing that was interesting was the placement of the race’s end. That platform had been moved to the middle of the track and highly elevated. This would be a more vertical race, then, one where the racers would circle around the final platform, trying to build up enough inertia to vault all the way to the top.
The key to those sorts of races was to find a cycle of boosts, dives, towers, and gravity wells, all linked together and looped through over and over while storing away an ever-increasing reserve of inertia. Then, when one’s banks were full the racer could do an almighty thrust up to the finish.
Taki had been so caught up with the raceway he had completely missed the countdown. As with the first race he vaulted over the edge a moment later than all of the other racers. Or rather, later than all of the other racers but one. Out of the corner of his eye he happened to notice that the green racer had held back, waiting for him to jump first.
Taki spun around as he fell through the air, turning face-up just in time to see the green racer plummeting down to him. It was too late to get out of the way, and so he braced for the impact.
Taki’s suit had already built up enough of a reserve to take the hit without him feeling any of the collision, that wasn’t a concern. What was a concern was that now the other racer had wrapped his arms around Taki’s, locking the two of them together. With the two of them pinned this way the other racer began burning through his own inertia, propelling them downwards like a rocket. The two of them hurtled past all the other racers, screeching towards the pavement below.
This wasn’t a strategy for winning. It was purely a revenge move, one that was entirely illegal and lethal. Taki gritted his teeth and tried to wriggle out of the other man’s grasp, but the lock was too tight and there was no breaking it.
Taki’s eyes fluttered from side-to-side, trying to find some way to escape. His roving eyes happened to light upon the corner of his HUD where his conserved inertia levels were indicated. He had a massive excess there, not too surprising given all of their extra speed.
Taki craned his head backwards, measuring the distance to the ground: 20 meters.
He glanced at the other corner of his HUD which gave the estimated impact force: 34 torques and counting.
Looked back to the ground: 10 meters.
Taki gave a sharp pulse from his own thrusters, not upwards but in a spin. The two of them rolled, now placing Taki on top. The other man thrashed in shock, finally letting go of Taki’s arms.
Right before impact Taki placed his feet on the man’s chest and kicked off, angling his suit to propel him upwards. There was a massive crack and he burst into the air, climbing through space just as quickly as he had been falling through it.
Taki didn’t know if the other man’s suit would have enough energy reserves to displace the force of both Taki’s thrust and the ground beneath. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. It was on that racer’s own head.
Instead Taki was intent on his target: the end platform. All his incredible excess of energy streamed out as billowing pockets of compressed air, vaulting him high into the sky, lifting him to the level of the winning platform. He passed above it, then angled himself down again, firing with his thrusters for a nice, soft landing on the pavement.
And just like that, he had won again.
Taki dropped to his knees and sighed out long and low. He had managed to survive, but his hands were clammy and his body was shaking. He thought he might be sick.
Power Suit Racing tended to attract some of the most desperate and degenerate of society. Frustrating as it was, revenge-mongers were just a part of the sport. Taki didn’t have long to stay alone in his shock. Already the spectator platform was descending to him, and everyone on-board seemed quite animated. The speed of his run must have broken a number of records.
Taki stood to meet them, feeling his resolve return and deepen. This was just a race, one of many. It was over and now it was time to move on to the next. No stopping, no waiting.
Less than an hour later Taki was in the next race, running sideways along a beam, reaching his arm out for a pole. He gripped it and swung himself around to another platform, planting his feet and sprinting towards the finish platform. He had burned too much of his inertia and couldn’t propel himself quickly enough. Another racer in gold won that race and Taki took second. Not as big of a payout, but he would still receive something.
“So you said you came here because you were mad,” Tala said to him as he used a spanner to refit the gloves of his suit. “Tell me about that.”
“Why do you care?”
Tala shrugged. “I like to know what drives a man, I suppose. So, did you kill someone?”
Taki had his feet planted in a wide stance, trying to keep his balance as he slid down an angled platform, coming down the home stretch to the final. Another racer suddenly careened at him from the left, trying to take him out. Taki barely got his hand up and fired a blast just in time to send that competitor spinning away.
Taki’s decline leveled out, came to an end, and he shot out through open space. He threw his hands out and caught the lip of the final platform, but in his moment of distraction had failed to jump high enough to mount it. He gave a blast from the boots of suit, causing his whole body to swing up and around like a pendulum, flipping him onto its surface. He had made it, but during his slight delay another racer had just barely beat him to the win. Second place again.
“Not any sort of crime?” Tala asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Hmm, okay then.” She looked disappointed. “So what are you running from, then? A girl?”
Taki rolled his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be that I’m running towards something?”
“You said you were angry. People don’t run towards things when they’re angry, only when they’re passionate. Anyway, definitely sounds like a girl.”
Taki landed in the center of the gravity well. Here a racer would be suspended in midair, lifting and falling with the pulsing energy. The trick was to figure out the cadence of that pulsation and press against it during an expansion-interval. That resulted the in the runner being catapulted out at terrific speeds. Taki tried to calm his panting breath, looking for that stillness which would allow him to sense the subtle shifts of the pulses.
He paused, waited through a few seconds to be sure he had it right, then thrust! Right as he burst forward another racer slammed him from the side, spinning him to the ground and out of the race.
“They keep targeting me directly!” Taki fumed to Boro.
“You’ve been doing well,” Boro shrugged. “They figure you’re their toughest competition.”
“Well I’m not very flattered.”
Boro sighed. “Listen kid, most of the runners in these races are losers. Now every so often a loser happens to have a little talent and they win a few races, but that streak lasts only four, maybe five races. Because really they’re still a loser, and they don’t know how to make the transition to being a winner. Then the other losers will pull them back down every time. It’s the how it works in this world.”
“But if you do make the transition to be a winner?”
“Then they can’t ever stop you.”
“How do you do it?”
Boro put down his tools and leaned close to Taki, looking him right in the eyes. “You did it once already. In that second race when the guy tried to squash you on the dive. You took his attack and you used it.”
“Really I was just trying to survive.”
“Well from now on winning is surviving. Look, they’re gonna to be coming after you like that. Every. Single. Race. You gotta run with their attacks now, not against them.”
Taki nodded to show he understood. “It sounds hard.”
Boro returned to his work. “Only a winner ever manages it.”
Taki saw the other racer out of the corner of his eye, but he was too late to avoid the hit. The two collided and the other racer threw him into a nearby boost. This boost was not a useful one, though, it was angled upwards, pointing uselessly out to the skies. Sometimes boosts were setup this way, providing red herrings for racers that weren’t paying attention.
Taki hurtled up in the air and spun around, taking in his new, less than ideal surroundings. In this race the final platform was quite low, 50 meters directly beneath him now. The problem was that the fall between him and it was entirely littered by various obstacles. There were a couple platforms running at odd angles, another boost going in the wrong direction, a giant, horizontal fan spinning dangerously…
Taki gritted his teeth, there was nothing but to go for it. He thrust himself downwards, adding his stored inertia to the natural pull of gravity. As he plummeted he gave a sharp twist and wound around the first of the platforms in his way. Now the next platform was coming up quick and he needed to go sideways, so he threw a thrust to the side, scraping across the last few feet of the platform as he rounded its edge.
He burst right, then left, not daring to slow his dive one bit. He needed to keep up as much momentum as possible for the end. The last obstacle was a wide tarmac shell that stretched over the entire top of the finish platform. It was intended to force runners into taking a sideways route to the end.
Taki streaked down to that shell and slammed his feet down against it, simultaneously throwing a downwards thrust and letting his suit’s impact resistors kick in. Under the triple blow the rock burst apart and he fell through the hole and onto the finish below. Finally a first place.
“See I like guys who have a passion for something,” Tala explained.
“I’m really not sure why you keep telling me about what you like and don’t like in guys. I mean I haven’t ever even asked you to dinner.”
“And yeah, about that,” she said accusingly. “What’s your problem there?”
“Oh…uh, well if I did ask would you say ‘yes’ to me?”
She scoffed. “No way. I only like guys who have a passion.”
Three weeks past by in a blur. Every night Taki went to bed sore and exhausted, each morning he raced the next day away. He was surprised at how much frustration he had to burn, but finally he seemed to be getting through it. He had already topped the Alley races and now he was being barraged by sponsors from the higher leagues, each asking him if he was ready to make the transition to the big time. He had made enough winnings to pay off both of his suits, and had even commissioned Boro to make him a third one with higher-grade parts. It would be perfect for an advance to the Street Tier.
But now that he was standing on the precipice of the future Taki felt himself hesitating. The whole point of these races had been to just plunge ahead without a plan, now he was being asked to decide what came next. That sounded a lot like having a plan again.
It was with his muddled around thoughts of the future that he walked off of the observer platform towards Boro’s shack, fresh off yet another win. As he neared the small structure he was pulled out of his reverie by a sense that something was off. Both Boro and Tala were standing outside with arms folded, watching him with apprehensive expressions.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Someone came down to talk to you, boy,” Boro said.
“What? Another sponsor?”
“No,” Tala said softly.
Taki frowned, but clearly the two weren’t going to be forthcoming about this. He sighed and walked through the door. There was a richly dressed woman he didn’t think he knew standing with her back to him. As she heard the door open she turned around to face him.
I mentioned on Monday about the common story archetype of rebirth. I explained that in today’s post we would see Taki fighting to fill the measure of his new identity. Certainly he started this adventure with some natural skill and an inclination for how to race, but as he became more of a threat to the other runners he had to learn to adapt to their attacks.
This growth in his technique is meant to parallel his growth within as well. He is no longer able to identify as just another part of the pack, he is becoming more elevated than the rest of the rabble he runs with. This is leading to a point of decision, evidenced by the conflicting feelings he has for graduating to the higher leagues of the sport. Though that path seems natural and obvious, a voice inside is resisting.
It is at this point of indecision that we are finally ready to see the final component of a character’s transformation: the return. In this case it is the return of his old love interest, come to invite him back to the life he thought he had lost. Next week we will see how he deals with this temptation, and whether he has truly changed or not.
Before that, though, I want to take a brief look at something more technical. I wanted to cover a lot of ground with this section of the story, and that led me to including a montage sequence. All at once the entire timescale of the story shifted to something far more rapid, and then it had to ease back out for the final scene. How exactly does an author manage a shift from one timescale to another anyway? Come back on Monday as we take a deeper dive on that subject, and then on Thursday we’ll have the last entry in Power Suit Racing. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
Motivation is the parent of action. All that we do in life we do because of our desire. Even the most basic of things, such as movement, would never occur unless we first hoped to obtain something by it.
Stories are much the same. Unless the characters want something, they never will do anything. If ever you’ve hit a lull in the action of your story, it’s probably because none of the characters have anything that they want at that particular moment. Often this is because they just achieved some milestone, and so for a brief moment they are content right where they are. It sounds like a nice place for them, but it is terrible for you as the author.
Unless, of course, you are at the natural termination of desire that signals the end of a story. “And they lived happily ever after” essentially means “and they have everything that they want, so they just kind of stay this way forever after and don’t do anything else of interest, so we’ll just stop talking about them now.”
This “storybook-ending” is one area where stories diverge from real life. In real life there usually isn’t such a total complacency where we forever cease to want any more. No matter how accomplished we have become, no matter how grateful we are for what we have obtained, there yet remains the compulsion to go further. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as it is this endless chase that drives us to ever improve and grow nearer to our most ideal self.
The reason why the storybook has an ending, then, is because the character has actually obtained that “most ideal self” which eludes us in the real world. Now that they are the full measure of the person they are supposed to be, there is no more need for motivation.
Ends Justified by the Means)
This would seem to suggest that it isn’t always so important what the exact motivation is, just that there is a motivation, and that it drives the character towards their ideal form. The only prerequisite, of course, is that the motivation is something that is “good,” something that is based on truthful precepts. Assuming that, the actual details of the motivation are superfluous.
Is the hero trying to bring peace to the land? Restore the balance of justice? Champion the cause of freedom? Then that’s all we really need to know. And so Piglet seeks to find a birthday present for his friend Eeyore, Prince Charming quests to rescue Sleeping Beauty, Shane resolves to stop the cruel cattle baron, and Thanos endeavors to bring balance to the universe.
Well, wait…hang on now. We seem to have stumbled upon a villain with that last one, haven’t we? Here we have a character whose motivation seems worthy enough, and that same motivation is indeed driving him to action, but it’s just that those actions happen to involve things like mass genocide. This is an example of a story in which the villain actually means to accomplish something moral, but to do so is willing to use methods that are immoral.
This represents one of the two main archetypes of villains in stories. The other, of course, is when the villain is just the embodiment of pure evil. Those villains do evil simply for the sake of being bad, whereas this one does evil with good intentions. Each of these two archetypes have their own place, each better suited to certain types of stories, but for the sake of this blog post let’s focus on the one whose evil actions bely their good intentions.
The imbalance inherent in these characters is by no means a work of fiction. Indeed they represent a moral dilemma that lies at the very root of our modern philosophies, namely the question of whether the ends can always justify the means. Consider the argument made by Socrates, as reported in Book V of Plato’s Republic. This discourse has long been a contentious topic for how it promotes an “ideal state,” one that is established only by first trampling down the most basic of human freedoms. It claims that the slaughter of infants, the dictating of when and with whom procreation can occur, and the separation of children from their parents could all be used to erect a more perfect world.
The natural response to such claims is repulsion. And it is important to note that it isnatural to respond that way. It means that it goes against our very intuition to excuse any evil, even in the name of the greater good. Our inner nature recognizes that there is a paradox in this, much akin to trying to reach higher numbers by subtraction, or in traveling to a destination by ever moving away from it. At our cores we seem to understand that evil consequences will undermine all good intentions.
But while I say that all these principles are basic and intuitive, yet there are examples throughout all history of those that still thought they could achieve a better state of man through actions of mass evil. Names that come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, characters that chill us as some of the most destructive individuals the world has ever known. Is it any wonder, then, that this fear bleeds through to our creative works of fiction, and the villains we put into them?
Destructive and Constructive Cycles)
So what then is the difference between the hero and the villain? It is simply this: the hero is motivated by good, that motivation leads to good actions, and the consequences of those actions are in harmony with the initial motivations. The consequences bolster the original intent, and the whole course is one of mutual assurance and progression. Consider the tortoise who is determined to stay the course, no matter how far behind his competitor he appears to be. His resolve informs his actions, his actions ensure his success, and his success confirms the validity of his resolve.
The villain, meanwhile, can also be motivated by good desires, but then selects actions that are evil, the consequences of which will actively undermine the initial motivations. They are set up for failure, even before the hero shows up on the scene. It is their own hand that stands strongest against them. Consider the Foolish Emperor who wishes to be loved and revered by his people, but whose pursuit of that ideal results in him parading naked through the streets. Even before the young boy calls out the truth of the matter, by his own hand he has already been disrobed before all of his subjects.
Personally I think that many stories have been written without the author consciously intending to make philosophical statements on human nature. And yet so many of them do, and have done so over the millennia, and are so consistent in their implied moral.
When the same conclusions so consistently arise in the subconscious, it is only natural to assume that these stories are indicative of a truth that resides in us all. We find in stories the answers to many of the most basic questions of mankind. In this particular instance we see that they answer the query “how should I live my life?”
As an answer stories acknowledge that a man must have desires, ones that necessarily lead to action. But then stories caution that man must realize that his actions have consequences, either for good or evil, and it is therefore wise for a man to deliberately choose the actions whose consequences are in harmony with the initial desires. Then a man does not undo his own self, he discovers his own self. That is how a man should live.
On Thursday I shared a story where two characters were driven against one another by strong motivation. We did not know where their motivations originated from, but we could tell that they were powerful and very destructive. By that alone we could tell that they were villainous, and subject to eternal frustration.
In my next story I’d like to look at motivation again, this time coupled with its consequences. In it we will meet a character that is deeply motivated, but one that is driven by that motivation to actions that are brash, and probably not the most self-improving. By the end of the story, though, we’ll see how he is able to shift his desires and results into greater harmony with one another. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of that tale.
This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”
How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”
Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.
But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.
Phisherman and Back to the Future)
When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.
So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.
That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!
The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)
In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.
Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.
This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.
Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)
Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.
Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.
You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.
Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!
There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.
Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.
But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.
And potions? Yes.
Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.
Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.
What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!
Well what would those look like?
You get the picture.
To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.
It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.
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.
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.
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.
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.