The Lessons of Pretend

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It might be all fun and games for the characters in my latest story, The Time Travel Situation, but for me this all serious work!

Actually, no, there’s been some genuine fun in writing this piece for me, but I have also covered a few important principles while working on the story, and now it’s time to review what all of those were.

The Work of Children)

Fred Rogers once said “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I absolutely believe that this is true. As a child, everything in the world is new. New sights, new people, new emotions, and new ideas. And all these new things must be processed. They must be worked over and understood, they must be laid out alongside of one another to understand all of their joint implications.

Watch a child playing pretend and you will inevitably see ideas and words and feelings that recently made an impression on them crop into their narrative, working their way through the child’s mind and words, until at last the child feels he or she has a bit more of a grasp on the matters.

This is why I started off this whole series by stating that there are no rules in the play of children. There are no necessary elements of plot structure or character arc or anything else we typically expect in a story. Because children aren’t really telling a story, they are trying to have an experience.

And I tried to make this a guiding principle of The Time Travel Situation. While I did give it enough structure that it could still appeal to more mature audiences, I was careful to preserve the sense of children just wanting to explore all the many different things that fascinate them. Thus the story is full of sensory, exploratory, free-flowing fun.

Something Old, Something New)

And to be true to that sense of children working out all the new things that interest them, I had the children make references to real-world media and history. It just wouldn’t have felt authentic to me if the shows and games they were experiencing weren’t bleeding into their playing pretend.

I explained that I didn’t want to overdo the real-world media references, though. Just a quick comment about Star Trek, a quote from Star Wars, and the opening premise of The Journeyman Project. I didn’t want this story to be a vehicle for homages to media, I wanted the references to only be a garnish to the more original narrative I had to tell.

But more prominent than these media references have been the historical ones. For example I have made Blackbeard a central character, a true-to-life pirate that we can read history books about. But I actually made a conscious decision to not go and look up details from the actual history of Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s real name), because I wanted him to be a work of childlike imagination. He’s larger than life, the way a child thinks a pirate should be. The children know absolutely nothing about what he actually was or when and how he died. All they really know is his name and career choice, and the rest for them is pure imagination. I wanted the story to reflect that same blissful ignorance.

A Rush of Ideas)

I also mentioned how these real-world references were part of how I made different worlds overlap in my story. There is the world of the children, their world of pretend, and the worlds of the historical and media figures they reference. Part of the reason for having so many intersecting realms goes back to that notion of children trying to make sense of their reality and playfully combining them to explore their full implications. I wanted the story to show that the children had a lot of different things on their mind. They are thinking about things that interest them, they are trying to explore relationships, they are trying to find an adventure in life that is exciting. All of those themes come out in the things they give voice to while at play.

But naturally this led to a deluge of different elements, and I was anxious about it becoming overwhelming. I wanted it to be indulgent, but not to the point of excess. My hope is that audiences will be able to flow along with the rapid-fire conversations in the same way that one does when having a conversation with a friend. You shift from one topic to another effortlessly, shifting from work to family to personal interests on a whim. It may be chaotic and all-over-the-place, but you still leave feeling satisfied. Because you and your friend weren’t worried about turning your conversation into a three-act story, you were just trying to get a sense of yourselves across.

In my story I want it to be the same. Yes there is some character development, such as with Blackbeard’s change of heart, but mostly I just wanted to have a conversation with you about these kids and try to give you a sense of them through it.

Broken Deals)

Last of all I spoke about stories where the hero needs to surmount the villain, but also needs to retain their honor to the end. I put the children in a compromising situation, one where they had an unacceptable deal setup with Blackbeard. But I couldn’t just have them break their promise or else they would lose their dignity. Therefore it was important to have Blackbeard break the terms first so that they children could be released from their end of the bargain as well.

And originally my intent was for the children to now trick Blackbeard into his own demise, but I realized that that would still feel dishonorable. So instead I allowed Blackbeard to see the error of his ways and genuinely join the children’s cause. This should allow us to enter the conclusion with an air of positivity where everyone’s honor has been preserved.

Now all that remains is to finish the thing! Come back on Thursday as we’ll do exactly that, after which we’ll be on to something different.

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.