We Can Do This the Easy Way, Or the Hard Way

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A Split Path)

On Thursday I will be posting the final entry in my latest short story. After the previous post, I pointed out that this ending could go one of two ways, either path serving as a fitting culmination to its themes.

From the very beginning of that story, Jeret has been shown as unfit for society. After a life of crime, his community finally ousted him, sending him on permanent exile to a floating asteroid. There he discovered a magical device, one that could create anything that he conceived of. Very shortly after discovering it, he fantasized about using this ability to wreak havoc on his home-world, destroying those that had condemned him. Condemnation and destruction have been consistent threads through his entire tale.

At the end of my most recent post, he has come to condemn and wish violence upon a race of beings that he himself created. He has come full circle, now becoming the authority that would blot out the rogues of his own nation. Thus he has the same hands as those that condemned him…which also means he has the hands that could liberate him instead. All that remains, then, is to see which path he will pursue.

In 1882, Frank R. Stockton published a short story that also came to a junction. In it, a princess loves a young man, but that man has been selected for a barbaric test of chance. He is placed in an arena, and must choose between one of two doors to open. Behind one is a ferocious tiger that will eat him, behind the other is a woman that he must marry.

The princess is seated in the stands, watching the trial, and she knows which fate is behind each door. She also knows the identity of the woman that has been selected as the man’s potential wife, and she suspects that the young man already has feelings for that woman. At the pivotal moment, the young man looks up to the princess, who motions towards a particular door, which he goes to open.

Then Stockton turns the narrative towards the reader: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

The end.

Do you think the princess condemned him to die out of jealousy, or do you think she let him live with another out of a sincere care for his well-being? What does your answer say about how you view feminine nature and romance?

This ambiguity works because there is still a complete story presented. It is not the story of the young man, his arc is most definitely not concluded. But there is a complete arc in the princess and in the question. No matter what she chooses, the princess has lost the man, her romantic story is concluded either way. The only question is whether she has done so graciously or not. It is a story of unrequited love, and it fittingly ends that subject with a hollow openness.

With the advent of social media, spurned lovers are able to follow the minutest details of old crushes from afar. Do they do so hoping to see their old flame find happiness, or hoping to see them in broken relationships and miserable? Perhaps a little bit of both?

If this story had a specific ending, then it would not make you consider your own conscience or question your own motives. In this case, a double-ended story serves a meditative purpose.

 

Choose the Better Path)

But such an ending would not fit my own tale very well. Yes, my story is allegorical, and hopefully inspires introspection; but in the end I want to make a statement about humanity, not ask a question of it. In tomorrow’s post Jeret will choose what he chooses, and there will be a specific outcome for that. I do, though, want the audience to understand what would have befallen him if he had chosen the opposite, so that I can compare and contrast which route was better.

One of may favorite stories of all time is an excellent example of this sort of ending. In the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, we meet a man who is very unhappy with the hand he has been dealt. George Bailey has wanted to get away from his quaint hometown ever since he graduated High School. He has big ambitions, and he wants to see the world and do amazing things.

But one thing after another stops him from ever accomplishing that. Obligations come to him from his late father, his brother, his wife and children, and his community. Duty and responsibility prevent him from ever living his dream, until he starts to realize that he will never have a life of significance.

One Christmas Eve, his passive disappointment turns into a sincere loathing for life, once an unfortunate string of events has him drunk, beaten, and facing time in prison. In this moment, where he feels so terribly low, he commits suicide and ends a life of misery. The End.

Well, not quite.

The story makes absolutely clear that this is the tragic conclusion that the story has been building towards. But then, right before he can take his life, heaven intervenes. A guardian angel appears and shows George that he has been seeing one story, when really another was at play.

It is true that George has never traveled the world and made the things he wanted to. But it is also true that he has made a real impact on the world for good. In between his heartaches and disappointments, he has brought joy into a place where it otherwise would not have been.

George learns that his life has been full of worth, if he is willing to see it. But it isn’t just George that has changed, the underlying story architecture has as well. Before the lengthy introspection, a happy ending just would not have worked, it would have felt tacked on and cheap. But the threads are revealed to be multidimensional, building towards a sad conclusion from one perspective, but also fitting for a happy one from another. Doesn’t that ring so true for our own lives as well?

My latest story, as it has been written, is building towards a tragic ending. A sad demise is the natural trajectory of all that has transpired. This Thursday I am going to try and inflect things, though. I will attempt to turn the threads so that they could have been pointing towards a good ending all along. Come back in a few days to see how it turns out.

Journeys and Detours

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The Journeyman’s Questions)

When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.

Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.

It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.

Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?

 

Questions Into Stories)

And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.

Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch.

Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.

Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.

This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.

Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.

Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.

 

Less Direct Routes)

The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.

But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.

For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.

Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.

In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.

That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.

In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.

When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.