The Time Travel Situation: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Alright, let’s get to it!” Mavis said, steering the Time Capsule down towards the train once more. “This is going to be tricky,” he grit his teeth as he phased the Time Capsule through the walls of the high security car.

“You can’t tether here!” Ellie exclaimed. “The Time Capsule is wider than the car. If we become physical we’ll smash it to pieces!”

“Trust me,” he said, calibrating the Time Capsule’s speed so that it maintained pace with the car. “Okay, Chase and Nell, be ready to take the wheel. I’m setting up a localized tether,” he explained, glancing up at the monitor before him. “Just a single burst that will connect a small section of the Time Capsule with the current moment. I’ll center it right…there” he pointed to a space of empty air right in front of the main control panel. “All of our air in that spot–and anything inside of it–will fall into the high security car. Starting the countdown now.”

“This is so Star Trek,” Chase grinned.

“No it isn’t, Chase. They don’t time travel in Star Trek.”

“They totally do!”

“Quiet! You’ve got to take the wheel now.”

Chase stepped up to the steering panel and Patrick, Mavis, Ellie, and Blackbeard moved over to the patch of space Mavis had indicated.

“Better hold on to me,” Blackbeard cooed to his raptors.

“The localized patch ends a foot off the ground,” Mavis warned the others. “So you’d better jump if you want to keep your feet.”

“What?!” Ellie shrieked.

“Jump!” Mavis ordered and they all leaped into the air. A surge of power coursed through the entire vessel, focusing itself on the area where the children and Blackbeard were now springing into the air. There was a dull popping noise as that patch of air was sucked out as if by a vacuum. Meanwhile, inside of the high security car there was a whoomph! as the extra air and the time travelers forced their way into that space.

“Yeah!” Chase cheered from the console as he and Nell watched their friends successfully enter the timeline.

“Nice,” Nell smiled. “Now get us to the back of the train and we’ll get into costume.”

And off they went while the rest of the crew began poking around the high security car. It was very dark, given that all the windows were shuttered and no lamps were lit inside. They could make out a massive, metal box in the center, though, which divided the car into four perimeter hallways.

“Ahh,” Patrick whispered. “It’s a safe. This is where they keep all the valuables that they have to transport.”

“But where be the time offenders?” Blackbeard asked the children in a low growl.

“Probably not here yet,” Mavis stated. “We’ve arrived before they showed up in this timeline.”

As if on cue there came a series of rapid popping sounds all around the room. Six of the time bandits burst onto the scene, each wearing the same armor as the ones from the other periods of history.

“Let’s get them!” Patrick surged forward.

“For history!” Ellie joined the charge.

Quietly, please!” Mavis added as he dove into the fray.

“At them, my beauties!” Blackbeard ordered his raptors and leaped to the battle.

All became utter chaos as arms and legs and heads and bodies flung about in a tumbling brawl!

*

“Excuse me, ma’am. Excuse me, sir.” Chase was walking down the aisle of the passenger car, dressed once more in period-correct clothing. He now came to the row that young Abraham Lincoln sat on and he couldn’t help but turn his head sideways to stare the man’s profile. Lincoln had his eyes fixed on the back of the person that sat in front of him, but his eyes were unfocused, as if he was lost in deep thought.

Bump!

Chase had not been paying attention to where he was walking and had just collided with a server coming the other way. Chase spun around just in time to see the man drop a tall stack of glass plates. He threw his hands out instinctively, barely managing to grab the stack out of the air before they shattered on the floor.

“Sorry!” he handed the plates back, then quickly moved away. He lowered to the nearest open seat, the one that Nell was already seated next to. “Whew, that was close, wasn’t it? You don’t think just that bump will have much of a ramification on the timeline, will it? Definitely would have been worse if the plates had broken though!”

But Nell wasn’t listening, she rotated backwards in her seat, attention locked on the conversation that Abraham Lincoln was now having with the man beside him.

“On your way back to Illinois, Lincoln?” the short, stocky man with vibrant, dark hair said to the future president.

“That’s right, Douglas.”

“To take up your law practice again?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Good for you, old boy! I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but the courts do suit you far better than the Senate ever did. Best favor I ever did was beating you in the elections!”

Abraham Lincoln sighed and looked away. “Well aren’t you gracious?” he asked sarcastically.

“Oh come now, Lincoln, there’s no shame in that! It’s just that some of us are born to interpret the law and others are born to write it. You’re the first and I’m the latter. There really wasn’t anything more for you to do in politics, anyway, you just have to play the role you’ve been given and be glad with it.”

Lincoln looked like he was about to retort, but then shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right, Stephen.”

*

“Blackbeard, over here!” Patrick called. He was hanging with all his strength to the back of one of the guards. Mavis had the same guard’s right arm pinned down, Ellie was restraining the left. Blackbeard dropped the guard he had been slapping silly and administered a massive haymaker to the one the children were grappling with, knocking him out cold. With that there was only two of the time bandits left, each of whom were entangled with Blackbeard’s raptors.

“Well this is going to be easy!” Patrick crowed.

“Reset!” one of the armored guards said to the other. “And bring in reinforcements!” The two remaining guards them trembled for a moment, then suddenly started moving in reverse. They’re bodies remained moving forward in time, but everything about them was happening backwards. Their armor became undented, their fallen comrades rose back to their feet, and they all returned to the starting positions where they had first arrived. Not only this, but there came another series of popping noises and six more of the guards arrived in the car.

“You just had to jinx us, didn’t you?” Ellie accused Patrick.

All of the guards surged forward. The children, Blackbeard, and the raptors tried to hold them off, but they couldn’t withstand the greater numbers. One of them pinned Mavis’s arms behind his back, another lifted Patrick high into the air, another held Ellie against the wall. Four of the guards restrained the raptors and another four…well…those four tried to restrain Blackbeard, but he continued thrashing around with them in a never-ending struggle.

Meanwhile the last guard pulled out a metallic briefcase and opened it. He began fiddling with its controls, configuring the bomb that rested inside!

*

“That’s their idea of being quiet?!” Nell hissed as she and Chase heard the ruckus coming from the high security car. “We’ve got to start a distraction!”

But as it turned out, there wasn’t any need.

“Oho there!” Douglas stood up next to Abraham Lincoln and pointed out the window to the highway robber that was riding out to stop the train. A moment later and the engineer turned up the speed, slamming everyone back into their seats. Several of the passengers screamed, and everyone was much too distracted to pay attention to the continuing thuds that sounded from the high security car.

“The engineer’s going to crash us!” Douglas exclaimed, gesturing to the wooden barricade.

“Everyone hold on to something!” Abraham Lincoln ordered, and a moment later the entire vehicle lurched through the wooden beams with a deafening crunch. Everything inside went bump! bump! bump! as some of those beams passed under the wheels of their car. Then came an even stronger bump, one that tipped the whole car sideways and was followed by a terrible grinding sound of metal on wood.

“What’s happening?!” a passenger shouted.

“Look there!” another passenger leaned out the window and pointed to the back of the car. “One of those blocks of wood is lodged under the wheel, we’re dragging it along.”

“If the wheels don’t have contact with the track then they won’t be able to make the turn!” another passenger pointed up towards a bend in the tracks just before the rails turned onto the bridge. “We’re going to derail!”

*

Blackbeard grabbed one of the guards and slammed him into the wall, knocking him out cold. But then came a trio of punches to his gut and even he couldn’t withstand all the abuse. He fell to his knees with a thud.

“Come now,” the guard who had finished assembling the bomb tutted. “There is no point in fighting against the inevitable. You’ll only bloody your lip and things will still come out the same. We are The Mass and The Mass is irrefutable!” And with that the guard pressed one last button on the bomb, starting a timer that began counting down from thirty seconds!

“You’re crazy!” Ellie strained against her captor. “You’re going to blow yourselves up along with the train?!”

“Actually, that won’t be necessary at all.” The guard nodded to the four who were restraining the raptors. Each of them touched a time-recall unit on their chests and disappeared with a pop, taking the reptiles out of the timeline with them. “All of us will leave, and you will remain with a bomb that you cannot deactivate. For you see, this bomb has already exploded, and that detonation is only traveling through time to meet the device where it currently resides.” He gave another nod and the guards holding Patrick, Mavis, and Ellie released the youth, then touched their time-recall units and disappeared with a pop. “So go ahead and look for a wire to cut, or a button to press. The deed has already been done, the detonation is irrefutable!”

*

“All of us are dead!” Stephen Douglas wailed in the passenger car.

“Out of the way!” Lincoln commanded as he pushed the man aside and leaned out the window in the back of the car. “We’ve got to get that block out of there.”

“Oh come off it, Lincoln!” Douglas scolded. “There’s nothing for you to do. You’re not a backwoodsman anymore, you’re a lawyer!”

“I’m not a backwoodsman or a lawyer!” Lincoln cried as he gripped the frame of the window, swung his legs out, and kicked the block of wood with all his strength. The entire car shook and the piece nearly dislodged itself, but not quite. He gave another kick, and with a tremendous crash the car fell back onto the rail, just in time to make its turn. A flurry of hands reached out and grabbed the hero around the shoulders and hauled him back into the train, just as it turned from the cliffs and onto the bridge. “I’m Abraham Lincoln!” he declared as the car erupted into cheers. “And you couldn’t be more wrong about me Douglas. There is much I have left to do, even in your precious halls of government!”

*

The armored guard looked back to the quickly-dwindling time: 5 seconds left. He nodded to the other guards who were holding Blackbeard and they, too, disappeared into thin air. Only the one guard remained.

“As I said before,” he said as he touched his chest, “we are the Mass, and the Mass is irrefutable!”

“Only Blackbeard is irrefutable!” the old pirate snarled. Then he sprang to his feet and charged forward.

“It doesn’t matter, Blackbeard!” Ellie wailed. “We can’t deactivate the bomb!”

But Blackbeard wasn’t leaping for the bomb, he was aiming for the guard. He slammed the foe straight in the chest, just as the guard’s time-recall unit powered on. Blackbeard grit his teeth as he angled the two of them through the air, redirecting their fall so that they landed on the bomb just as the time recall fully energized. A slight ripple of blue light began to emanate from the bomb, but then it and Blackbeard and the guard disappeared with a pop, carrying the explosion to another moment in time!

Just like that…it was over. All of the children looked at each other with mouths agape.

“Did that–” Patrick spluttered in disbelief. “Did they–did we just pull that off?!”

Blackbeard pulled it off,” Ellie corrected. “I guess his honest streak won out in the end.”

“Yeah…I guess was wrong about him,” Mavis admitted. He shook his head with a smile. “Hey guys, let’s get out of here.”

Mavis activated his walkie talkie to report their success to the others. Nell and Chase quietly slid out of the passenger car and back to the Time Capsule. They picked up Ellie, Patrick and Mavis, untethered from that moment of time, and sent the machine flying back to the present.

“Well I call that mission a success!” Mavis grinned.

“Yep,” Nell approved. “Impossible as it seemed, we’ve tied off every last, little thing.”

“Well…not everything,” Patrick interjected. “We still don’t know where those time bandits even came from. How did they have better tech than us? Are they from the future? But then why would they be trying to mess up history? Seems liked they’d be destroying their own lives as much as ours!”

Right on cue a massive alien spaceship materialized right in their own bubble of time warp!

Humans!” a voice spoke through the Time Capsule’s speakers. “You have crossed us for the last time. The Mass is irrefutable!

Mavis looked to the other children in awe. He was about to bark out orders…but just then the school bell started ringing. Recess was over.

“We’ll have to pick it up next time,” Ellie sighed, and with that the adventurers scampered off for their backpacks.

Well there it is, the end of The Time Travel Situation! There really were many things that I enjoyed about writing it, but honestly I spent a great deal of my time trying to beat it back down from ballooning into something much larger than I’d originally intended. And this is not the only story that I’ve had seen get bloated of late. Pretty much all of my recent stories have run away with me for far longer than I’d intended for them to.

But this hasn’t always been a problem for me. In fact I’ve had plenty of stories that were far shorter than what I’d intended as well. In fact one of the most difficult things for me when writing a story seems to be keeping things to the length that fits them best. I’d like to share a bit more of my experience with that in my next post, and perhaps I’ll learn a few things that I can bring into my next story on Thursday.

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.

The Time Travel Situation: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

All was chaos once more as pirate and children chased each other all about the Time Capsule. Blackbeard was a more persistent predator than the raptors, though, far less prone to being distracted. Despite the children’s efforts best efforts he soon had Patrick by the scruff of his neck.

“Alright then!” he roared. “All of ye will be calming down now, ‘less you want any harm to come to yer crewmate here!”

Mavis, Chase, Nell, and Ellie glanced at each other, then slowly lowered the boxes and chairs they had been about to throw.

“Very good!” the pirate approved. “Now it would seem I am requiring a new vessel. This” he gestured to the time machine “will be that vessel. The lot of you will teach me to command such a craft and I…will let you live.”

“Don’t do it!” Patrick shouted. “We can’t let him get power over all of history!”

“Well perhaps not all of ye will live!” Blackbeard hissed into Patrick’s face.

“Don’t hurt him!” Nell shouted. “We’ll help you.”

“What?” Mavis looked incredulously to Nell’s worry-etched face.

“Very good,” Blackbeard approved. “Now if ye would be so kind, lass, direct me to the helm of this vessel.”

“It’s over here,” Nell stepped to the central panel and flipped a few switches, causing the Time Capsule to shudder as it hurtled along its way to the future.

“Curious…” Blackbeard took a step nearer, still holding Patrick firm. “No wheel?”

“No. Switches and dials.”

“Teach me.”

“Let the boy go first.”

“If I be letting the boy go, then you will have no reason to obey.”

“Trade then,” Nell held her arm out to Blackbeard. He paused for a moment, as if trying to detect a trap, then gripped her wrist. As soon as he had her secured he let Patrick go. “I’ll tell you everything,” she said, “and you can keep our ship. But in return we’re going to need your help. We have an important mission to fulfill and we’re down to its last stage now. You see us through to the end, drop us off at our home berth, and then our ship and the knowledge to run it will be yours.”

Blackbeard laughed, then spat in his hand and held it out to her. Nell nodded and spat in his hand, too.

“Er…” Blackbeard stared at his hand in confusion, but waved the matter away with a careless shrug. “It’s a deal then!”

“Perfect,” Nell turned back brightly to the other children, only to find them staring at her with mouths agape. “What?” she asked innocently.

“Could I have a word, Nell?” Mavis hissed as he grabbed her elbow and escorted her out of Blackbeard’s earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?! We can’t give the Time Capsule to Blackbeard!”

“Well he’s going to help us finish our mission first. We’ll come back home with history having been righted and that’s the extent of our job, Mavis.”

“History won’t be righted! Blackbeard was supposed to die in that storm.”

“We don’t actually know that. It’s only a legend that he died there. And anyway, he’s still been taken out of that timeline one way or another, hasn’t he?”

“Oh really? You’re using the same defense as Patrick with his raptors now? At least he wasn’t giving them a time machine to go mess up whatever moment in history they want! There’s no telling what that old cutthroat will get to if he has the Time Capsule!”

“Alright!” Nell conceded. “It’s an imperfect solution. We’ll just have to figure out the rest as we go. What matters is that I took care of what I had to in the moment.”

Mavis narrowed his eyes. “You mean saving Patrick.”

“Yes, saving Patrick, Mavis. What’s the matter with that? He’s a member of our crew, isn’t he?!” And with that she jerked her arm free and returned to the rest of the crew.

“We’re about to come out of timewarp,” she observed, “and I’ve got a feeling this will be the most dangerous task we’ve faced yet.”

“The time coordinates say its the mid 1800s,” Chase announced. “Coming into the United States…looks like central Missouri.”

“1800s!” Blackbeard clapped a hand to his head. “What manner of ships might one find in such a time as that?”

“Oh, some really cool ones,” Patrick grinned. “They’re about to invent invent the first ironclad warships.”

Ironclad?!” the pirate exclaimed. “I’ll be unstoppable!”

Mavis shot a furious glare at Nell.

“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell tutted. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”

As if on cue the Time Capsule began to wind down for final approach. It was now slow enough for its occupants to make out the landscape before them. The ocean of water had been replaced for one of dust. A single, flat, empty plain extended for as far as the eye could see in every direction.

Well…almost empty. Snaking through the void was a single, black snake, which as the Time Capsule descended lower and lower revealed itself to be a railway line. And upon that line a single steam train chugged from east to west.

“A train?” Chase said in surprise. “Why would the time bandits be interested in a train out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Probably there’s something important on the train,” Ellie observed.

“Yeah…hang on…” Patrick stepped over to the panel, started fiddling with the Time Capsule’s optics, and the screen overhead zoomed in to a close-up view of the passenger car. There, framed against the fifth-window-from-the-back they saw a tall, thin man. He did not yet have his famous beard or stovepipe hat, but he was already recognizable to the children.

“Abraham Lincoln?!” Mavis exclaimed.

“I guess this time they’re not trying to save monsters or tyrants,” Nell concluded. “They’re trying to assassinate someone prematurely, take him out before he can steer the course of history.”

“But how?”

“What manner of witchcraft be this?” Blackbeard approached the panel and view screen in awe. He reached a hand out to the dials but Mavis slapped it away.

“I’m working,” Mavis said, then spun the dial so that the outside optics moved forward along the train tracks. “Obviously a train is an isolated, easy target to destroy. The question is whether they’re trying to do that from within the train, or from outside of it…oh…”

A distant bridge had just come into view on the display panel. It was a strip of nearly a mile, stretched precariously over a gorge that was over a thousand feet deep. And down on the supporting beams had been strapped many massive clusters of dynamite!

“Alright,” Mavis sighed. “Looks like we know their play.”

“Well what about on the train itself?” Nell asked. “Any additional threats there?”

Mavis spun the dials and the viewing screen shifted back to the engine. It slid along the outside of the long vehicle and the children watched for any anomalies.

“There!” Chase pointed. “Two of those armored guards lurking on top of the cars.”

“Nuts…” Mavis exhaled through clenched teeth. “You guys understand, we can’t just stop the bridge from exploding, we have to handle it discreetly. We might save Abraham Lincoln, but if the people on that train see something that they weren’t supposed to, the ripples through time might still be enormous! This is going to be a much harder task.”

“Is the remote activator working now?” Ellie asked. “So we can reset the timeline if things get too screwy?”

“Yes,” Mavis checked the glowing harness. “But we can’t get sloppy because we’re depending on it. We can only reroll the dice once, then the remote activator will break forever. I’ll be the one wearing it and I won’t activate it unless we absolutely have to.”

“So what be the orders for me and my little reptile friends?” Blackbeard grinned toothily. He was stroking the heads of the two raptors he had brought aboard, which having finally regained consciousness now seemed to regard the pirate as the leader of their pack.

“Somehow I don’t see you as being the sort to handle things discreetly,” Mavis’s eyes went wide. “So you’re going to be as far from the train as possible, handling the dynamite on the bridge. Ellie, Patrick, you go with him. Chase, Nell, and I will take care of things on the train. Everyone ready?”

They all nodded and Mavis punched the thruster, whisking the Time Capsule through the air and over to the bridge. Mavis very briefly tethered to that timeline, just long enough for Patrick, Ellie, Blackbeard, and the raptors to jump out onto the tracks. Then he untethered the Time Capsule and raced to the back of the train for a soft landing.

“Looks like that’s the storage car right in front of us,” Chase observed as the machine tethered once more to that moment of time. “We can probably find some more time-appropriate clothes in there.” Chase was correct, and very quickly they were all dressed accordingly. Then they split up, Nell and Mavis going up top to take out the armored guards, while Chase moved into the passenger car to make sure that no one was noticing the soft thuds coming from above the ceiling.

*

“You say there is a great bomb inside of this little stick?” Blackbeard peeled one of the pieces of dynamite off the bridge with glee. “What will the British Navy think when they see me hurling this at their decks?!”

“Blackbeard, remember, you can’t go back to your olden days!” Ellie reminded him as she pulled another stick of dynamite off the bridge and handed it to Patrick, who was carefully removing their fuses. “You can’t do anything to change history. That might erase all of us so that we don’t exist!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard shook his head. “If I understand you correctly, then I only must only go no further back than the day you found me in the storm.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I were to go to my history then it would undo the makings of me,” Blackbeard explained. “But so long as I only tamper with my present and my future, then I shall come to no harm.”

“But…we might!” Patrick said in exasperation. “You’re forgetting that your future is our past!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard said again as he removed the last stick of dynamite from the bundle they had been working on. “What is forgotten is that I now have the only fused explosive, and ye are at my mercy!”

“What are you doing?” Ellie exclaimed in shock. “We had a deal!”

“And now we have a new one,” Blackbeard sneered. “Ye will forget this ‘quest’ ye are on, ye will return me to the ship, and I will maroon you all in this savage time, taking your vessel for meself! Raptors!” he snapped to his newfound pets. “Surround them!” The lizards obediently flanked the children on either side.

“You won’t get away with this,” Patrick said, and before another word could be uttered by any of them the sound of a shot rang out! The children and pirate ducked as a bullet pinged off the side of the bridge only three feet away!

“We’re being shot at!” Blackbeard roared, pocketing the dynamite and reaching for his flintlock pistol.

“But by whom?” Ellie wondered aloud as she and Patrick used the distraction to move under the girders of the bridge and away from Blackbeard and his raptors.

“Think about it, Ellie,” Patrick replied. “Wasn’t there something strange about that dynamite?”

“No…it just looked like the regular stuff to me.”

“Exactly! But everything we’ve seen so far from the time bandits stood out like a sore thumb. A high-tech cannon in the age of dinosaurs, jet thrusters on a pirate ship…but this dynamite has been totally period correct.”

“So you don’t think it was the time bandits who put it there?”

“I don’t.”

“But then, who?”

Part Five
Part Six

On Monday I shared about chaotic stories, ones that make use of a huge cast of characters, or noisome settings, or quickly-shifting themes and objectives. I spoke about how these tales can still remain coherent by remaining true to some central idea, and in the case of The Time Travel Situation the central idea is trying to stop all of these changes to history.

It’s not a particularly strong through-line, though. It’s not as if the time bandits have a central villain to serve as the story’s primary antagonist. Each jump to another place in time essentially resets all of the tension, with little carrying from one stage to the next. The through-line is only providing a reason for these time-hops to occur, and that is enough for my needs.

The other thing I mentioned about chaotic stories is that some tales embrace the chaos, simply wanting to take you for an entertaining ride without concerning themselves with telling a meaningful narrative. The Time Travel Situation falls far more firmly under that category. It’s central purpose is to present children playing pretend, no more and no less. I might briefly incorporate relationship drama between Mavis and Nell and Patrick, but that’s only an entertaining aside, not an indicator of deeper character development to come. Nor does Blackbeard’s betrayal have any more nuance than it initially appears to. It is a straightforward piece of cheating, used as a convenience to get the the children out of their promise to him.

This is something that happens in stories all the time, by the way. The hero will be held back from utterly destroying the villain because of some promise or sense of duty. Of course they could renege on those promises or duties, but then they would be immoral. This conundrum is then resolved by the villain doing something deceitful, something that either removes the hero from the obligation of their promise, or allows them to destroy the villain in an act of self defense.

It’s a bit contrived, to be sure, and can certainly be overused, but let’s take a look at a few examples of this in other stories with my next post. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then see the next chapter of The Time Travel Situation on Thursday.

The Time Travel Situation: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

All at once the Time Capsule’s engines groaned to a halt and the time travelers became tethered to this current moment of history. Now the spray of ocean water came peppering through the holes in the Time Capsule and the wind howled through every crack. The children and the raptors froze where they were, startled by the sudden change in their surroundings.

“Where are we?” Chase glanced to the main panel. “Hmm…Pacific Ocean…1700s…looks like we’re on an old sailing ship!”

“Not just any old sailing ship,” Ellie pointed her finger to the mast where a jolly roger blew fitfully in the breeze. “A pirate ship!”

Before the children could say anything more the raptors had snapped out of their initial shock, and returned to the matter of terrorizing the children.

“Ahhh!” Chase flung himself backwards just in time to avoid having his face bit off. As he fell he threw his hand out to catch himself, accidentally pressing the cabin decompression button along the way.

FOOOOM!

The doors of the Time Capsule slammed open and all of the children, raptors, and broken pieces of the machine were expelled instantaneously. They burst across the upper deck like little cannonballs, spraying splinters and splashing puddles of water onto the crew of pirates assembled below.

“Lookee there!” the Captain of the cutthroats shouted. “Sirens! No doubt the same ones what conjured up this blasted storm! They be here to sink us to the very depths! Bring me their hearts if ye want ter live!”

All five time travelers gasped at the face of the man. It was the most grizzled, scarred, and burned visage they had ever seen. Over his head he wore a crimson three-cornered hat, and extending from his face was a beard so scraggly and sprawling that it appeared like an explosion on his chin. It was also as dark as night.

“This is Blackbeard’s crew!” Ellie whispered in shock.

“Yes, and they’re coming to murder us!” Chase panicked, for at their Captain’s behest the entire crew was now surging for the upper deck, belaying pins and cutlasses waving in every hand!

But they never made it to the children. For no sooner did the raptors see the rushing tide than they concluded these larger humans were much more of a threat than the small children. The lizards rose to their feet and dashed into the fray, clashing into the pirates on the stairs, slashing at them with murderous intent!

“Let’s go!” Mavis ordered, bounding for the nearest rigging and climbing away from the commotion. The others quickly followed, discussing their situation as they went.

“Why would the time crooks have come here?” Patrick wondered aloud.

Mavis pointed to the massive storm drawing ever nearer. “Legends state that Captain Blackbeard terrorized the seas until he and his crew were drowned in a terrible typhoon. This must be the moment where the greatest menace to ever sail the ocean died!”

“Unless he didn’t,” Ellie caught on. “Unless someone went back to save him, just like they were about to with the dinosaurs.”

“And who knows what sort of devastation that old cutthroat might get up to if he doesn’t die here,” Nell agreed. “Our whole society might be changed because of it.”

“Alright,” Mavis concluded. “We’ve got a moment while the raptors have the pirates distracted, but it won’t last for long. All of you look for the time crooks and stop whatever they’re up to. I’ll try and get the Time Capsule back to a workable state again. Everyone clear!”

“Clear!” came the chorus of responses. All of the children flung themselves from the rigging, grabbed the nearby ropes, swung to different parts of the deck, and dashed off in search of the time invaders.

“I’ll sweeping the cargo hold,” Nell said into her walkie talkie, ducking under some crates to avoid the gaze of nearby pirates.

“I’ve got the sleeping quarters,” Ellie finished her rope swing by kicking a raptor clean over the railing.

“I’ll check the exterior,” Patrick swung hand-over-hand along the outside of the ship, moving as effortlessly as if he were crossing monkey bars on a playset.

“I’ll look in the Captain’s quarters,” Chase offered, and so saying he pushed open the great door and sidled into the dimly lit room. There was a great desk in the back, a heavily marked map upon it, and a chest down by its side.

“Blackbeard’s treasure!” Chase gasped, then reached a trembling hand to open its lid. All manner of gold and jewels twinkled up at him, an incredible wealth untold. “Patrick was dumb to bring a living raptor with him,” he said. “But who would miss a few gold coins destined to be lost at the bottom of the ocean?”

“I would,” a dark voice breathed out from behind. Chase spun around in the dark and found himself face-to-face with the silhouette of Blackbeard himself! Before Chase could dodge out of the way, the burly man flung out a massive arm and seized him around the neck, lifting him high into the air.

“Guys, help!” Chase choked into the walkie talkie. His legs kicked wildly and his eyes roved his surroundings for anything help him out of the situation.

“Ye know that they say: there be no honor among thieves!” Blackbeard snarled. “Now ye’ll feel the full measure of an honorless death!”

A slight movement caught Chase’s attention and his eyes shifted to a nearby porthole just in time to see the baby raptor slink into the room. “Hey ugly,” he grinned down to Blackbeard, “you ever been bit in the butt by history?”

With a crash the baby raptor’s mother burst through the porthole, took one look at the giant of a man standing near to her baby, and snapped her teeth into his great posterior.

“Yeeeooowch!” Blackbeard dropped Chase and twisted round, trying to clobber the raptor.

“Alright!” Chase crowed into his walkie talkie. “Never mind on that rescue!”

“Would you be quiet!” Nell snapped back. “I think I just heard something!” She put the walkie-talkie down and pressed her ear to the wall at the back of the ship. There, on the other side of the hull, she could just barely make out a faint, machine-like whirring. “I found them!” she hissed. “They’re hanging onto the outside of the ship!”

Ellie swung around the outside corner of the ship and did a double-take. “I can confirm,” she said. “I’ve got eyes on them and…uh…you guys better grab onto something!”

“Wait, why?” Chase asked as he lifted a handful of gold coins and rubies from Blackbeard’s treasure chest and deposited them in his pocket.

Before Ellie could give an answer the futuristic thrusters that had been attached to the back of the ship activated. Two jets of fire streaked out above the ocean as twin beams of light, propelling the entire ship forward at turbo speed!

With a shout Blackbeard and the raptor flew through the room and smashed into the wall at the back of the sleeping quarters. The raptor was knocked out cold.

“Uh oh,” Patrick gulped.

“Now it’s yer turn!” Blackbeard approached Patrick with a toothy grin.

“What’s going on?” Mavis’s voice came over the communicators. Up above, he scrambled out of the Time Capsule and rushed to look over the rear of the ship.

“They’re using thrusters to push the ship away from the storm!” Ellie replied, flipping through the air and landing on one of the metal platforms that the time bandits had erected to hold those thrusters in place. There were two more of those armored guards standing upon it and the nearest of them rushed forward to attack Ellie. “We got to get these out of commission,” she concluded before ducking under the guard’s first punch!

“I’m here!” Patrick sprang out a rear-facing window and fell onto the platform beneath the other thruster. He turned up his arm just in time to block a punch from the other armored guard, then swung his own fist into the menace’s side with a loud clang. “Owwwww!” he moaned.

On the other side of the hull Chase threw the chest of gold and jewels at Blackbeard. The heavy trove slammed into the pirate’s face, then slid to the ground without so much as fazing him.

“Yer a fool!” Blackbeard snarled, then gripped the back of Chase’s shirt and flung him clean through the wall. Chase slammed into the guard attacking Patrick, knocking the enemy over the edge and down to the water below.

“That’s one down!” Patrick crowed.

“But a new one still to go!” Chase pointed to Blackbeard forcing his way through the hole he had thrown the boy through.

Ellie ducked and weaved around her own assailant, trying to avoid the foe’s crushing blows.

“You don’t have a chance!” the guard snarled. “No armor? No augmented strength? No weapon? How do you expect to defeat me?”

“I don’t!” Ellie shot back, standing to her feet and raising her fists.

The guard gave a wild cry and charged forward at full speed. Right before impact Ellie gave a quick sidestep, causing the guard to pummel full speed into the thruster stream that Ellie had been standing in front of a moment before.

“I expect you to defeat yourself,” Ellie concluded as the guard’s armor and skin melted off and its bones turned to dust…

“No!” Ellie interrupted Nell’s narration. “I beat the guard, so I get to describe it! Shee just gets caught in the thruster stream and carried out to sea. No blood or melting or anything.”

“Hey you guys, we’re still moving away from the storm!” Mavis pointed out as he tried to screw a panel back into place.

“Yeah, we know!” Chase strained as he ducked one of Blackbeard’s giant fists. “This situation is a mess! We still have that remote activator thingy charged? Let’s reset and try again.”

“No we don’t,” Mavis sighed, looking up at the broken module. “I better get that back online, but now we’ve only got one shot at this. We have to get it right!”

“Don’t worry!” Nell called into her walkie talkie, sprinting as quickly as she could through the hull of the ship. “I’m bringing backup!”

“What?”

Nell clipped the walkie talkie to her pocket and sprinted even faster. She flew into the Captain’s quarters, off the desk, and through the hole that had been broken through its back wall. She vaulted over Blackbeard’s head, then came to a skidding halt on the edge of the thruster platform.

“Arrgh! Another one!” the buccaneer snarled, stepping into line with Nell. Then, all of a sudden, the two other adult raptors slammed into his back! They had been chasing Nell all through the hold of the ship and he had stepped into their way. A moment later and the pirate and lizards were flailing in their fight, the children left entirely forgotten.

“Good work, Nell!” Patrick approved. “Any luck on your side, Ellie?”

“Almost…got it…” Ellie had spent the last minute straining at the bolts on the thruster on her side. She had managed to remove its outer panel and was trying to pry the largest cable out of its socket. “There!” she exclaimed as the cable came loose and the power to the thruster cut off instantaneously. Everyone shouted as the entire ship now careened to one side, driven through a tight curve by the other thruster that was still online.

“Hold on!” Ellie panted. “Hold on!” She watched as the ship raced through an arc of 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees… “NOW!” she shrieked as it turned a full 180, then thrust the cable back into its socket, bringing the second thruster back to life. Now the ship was facing back towards the storm and blistering forward to meet it!

“Time to go!” Ellie called to Patrick, Chase, and Nell…but none of them would be leaving anytime soon. Of course all of their commotion had drawn the attention of the pirate crew, who were now billowing out of the holes in the back of the ship and vaulting over the railing, filling up every open space of the platforms that the children stood upon. Ellie flicked her eyes left and right, but the only escape was into the swirling ocean water.

“Arr, Captain was right!” one of the pirates snarled. “They be sirens, come to sink us in the depths!”

“Well now we have them on the end of a plank,” another laughed. “Let’s make ’em walk it!”

“Mavis, are you hearing this?” Ellie asked fearfully.

“Yeah, yeah…let me think…” Mavis closed the last of the panels he had been repairing and rapidly flipped some switches. “Things are even shakier than before,” he wiped his brow, “but I think the Time Capsule might hold out for another jump.”

“You’re going to leave us?!” Nell screeched as the pirates slowly advanced, cutlasses out, forcing the children to back up to the edge of the platforms.

“Trust me,” Mavis returned, scrutinizing the three-dimensional time-space hologram in the center of the Time Capsule. “And…activate!” He flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position. The Time Capsule hummed to life, detaching itself from that moment and floating weightlessly forward through time and space.

“He is leaving us!” Patrick pointed frantically at the outline of the Time Capsule as it flickered out of their reality.

“Shut yer mouth!” Captain Blackbeard snarled, each of his fists was closed around the tail of an unconscious raptor. ” And jump to yer doom!”

Up in the Time Capsule, Mavis had each hand on a separate dial, turning them in tandem to maneuver himself through space with careful precision. Now that he was detached from any moment of time the machine’s matter would not interact with the pirate ship. He was able to steer his vessel clean through the wooden walls, coming out the back of the ship, just underneath the platforms his friends were about to fall from.

“Okay,” he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I’ve got to time this just right.”

“I said off!” Blackbeard shouted up above, then swung the limp raptors at the children. Ellie, Chase, Patrick, and Nell took another step backwards, lost their balance, and plunged off the edge!

“Whoops!” Mavis said as the children fell clean through his vessel and down to the water below! He spun another dial and time slowed around him, paused, and finally reversed, scooting the children back up into the air. He spun the dial the other way round, returning time back to its forward motion. At the exact same moment he punched a button, retethering himself to that instance of spacetime, causing the Time Capsule to become physical once more. Chase, Evie, Patrick, and Nell fell through the Time Capsule’s open hatches and landed with a thump in their seats.

“Gotcha!” Mavis crowed.

“How many tries did it take?” Nell demanded.

“Just one, of course.”

“Come back here!” Blackbeard shouted from above, then leaped off the platforms, raptors still dangling from his hands.

“Get us out of here!” Chase shouted.

Mavis punched the controls again, sending the Time Capsule hurtling into the future. As the flow of time accelerated outside, the children watched the pirate ship streak past them at superspeed, jets propelling it straight into the storm! They had done it. They had restored time to its proper outcome. A little messy perhaps, but fate had been restored. Now there was only–

“What manner of witchcraft be this?!” a gruff voice interrupted from the corner of the Time Capsule. For Blackbeard had fallen into the vessel before Mavis had finished making the jump forward in time. He was hurtling towards the future with the children!

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

On Monday I spoke about stories wrapped around stories and ones that have intersecting realities. The Time Travel situation features the story of real-world children bookending the inner fantasies that they live out on the playground. It also has multiple, different settings bleeding into each other, such as when the raptors came onto the pirate ship and now Blackbeard into the future.

This free-flowing approach to settings and reality was exactly the reason why I wanted to write this story. Usually when writing a fantasy it still has to be grounded in some way, but the backdrop of children playing pretend made just about anything possible for me.

That isn’t to say that chaos can’t be taken too far, though, of course it can. Even with this story I’m anxious that I will throw in too many components, until things fail to even register anymore. When a story is weighed down by too many ideas then eventually the reader becomes saturated and all the other ideas have to roll off, even more useless than if they hadn’t been there at all.

And this is not all. A story must also be able to give its chaos greater meaning. If it has many intriguing ideas, but no compelling narrative behind them, then it will still remain dissatisfying. With my next post I want to consider some other examples of successfully chaotic stories, ones that are bursting with thousands of ideas, yet also grounded enough for those ideas to bear weight. Come back on Monday as we consider these examples, and then again on Thursday as I try to implement their lessons into the next entry of The Time Travel Situation.

Boat of Three: Part Five

person holding water
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”

“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”

“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of  which way, and how to correct it.”

“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”

“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”

“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”

“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”

“But…what are you saying?”

“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p

“But–but–it’s all that we have!”

“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”

“But there isn’t anything else for us.”

“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”

“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”

Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”

“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”

Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”

“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”

“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”

“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”

“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”

“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”

“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”

“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”

“I don’t see what you mean.”

“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”

“But it was three days.”

“But if it had only been one?”

“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”

Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.

“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”

Bartholomew coughed on cue.

“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.

“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”

Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.

“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.

“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.

“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”

“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”

Bartholomew simply shook his head.

“You won’t tell us?”

“If I tell…you will kill me.”

“What? Don’t be daft, man.”

He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.

“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”

Bartholomew just shook his head.

“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”

“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”

“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”

Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”

Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.

“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”

“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”

“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”

Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.

“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.

Julian simply stared.

“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”

Julian scowled deeply.

The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”

“I’m not a coward!”

“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”

So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.

Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.

“So…” Captain Molley breathed.

The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.

Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.

And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.

Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.

Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.

Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.

On Monday I spoke of stories where characters are at odds with themselves. Julian was my example in this story of a man who undoes himself. He accomplishes this in several ways. Initially he wanted to kill off Bartholomew to better survive, then later Captain Molley. Thus his ever-shifting nature deprived him of any ally. He was so desperate to keep himself alive, that he failed to account for the need of retaining any friends to save him.

But even more than this, he kept undermining his own hopes for rescue. Things were already very strained for reaching the pirate’s cove, but then he was the one that knocked out their guide. He was the one that aggravated Captain Molley into collapse. He was the one that stole food so that they didn’t have enough for them all. He was the one that covered his sins with lies, which lies broke Captain Molley’s hope in their plan. At the end he found himself fighting with Captain Molley and Bartholomew, but they were fights that he had only brought on himself.

Or had he? To an extent he made his own choices…but also he was deeply manipulated by Bartholomew along the way. The pirate sowed discord in the man at every point possible, taunting him into attacking himself, putting into his head the notion that one of their crew needed to die, and leaving poor Julian to carry out Bartholomew’s own dirty work for him. Julian may have been a sinner, but Bartholomew was the devil driving him.

Which ties into my earlier blog post about characters who are harboring secrets. It was stated a few times that Bartholomew was closely watching his companions, and it was implied that he had manipulative intent towards them. But what exactly he was trying to do and how he meant to do it remained a mystery up until the very end. Clearly he wasn’t so weak as he pretended, only acting so until one of the other two men had evened the odds for him.

But even after that much is cleared up, Bartholomew still retains many secrets, and he keeps them clear until the end. Just how much of what he did and said was true? How much of it was just a fabrication to build up tension? And the story’s biggest secret of them all: was the pirate’s cove he spoke of even real or not? Was that just a story to get the other men to see him as essential for their survival? At the very end, as he takes the oars and starts rowing, I came very close to saying whether he kept north towards the promised cove, or if he turned east towards the trade route. I repressed that urge, though., for this is a story about deceit, and so it was only right to end on a note of uncertainty.

Though…to be fair…if you understand the character and the themes, you should be able to tell which of those two endings would be the right one.

Even earlier I wrote a blog post about tension between allies, characters who are momentarily aligned in purpose, but not friendly to one another in the least. Clearly this story had that in spades. And specifically it had it in the flavor of natural enemies who we knew were going to come to blows sooner or later, and the only question was when that conflict would actually break out.

Choosing where to have that payoff was an interesting process. Really at just about any time I could have said “okay, that’s this person’s tipping point. Things fall out now.” In fact Captain Molley already came to that point when Julian had taken his feud with Bartholomew too far. And Julian came to that point previously when he hit Bartholomew in the head with the oar. But I intervened in both of those moments and delayed the ultimate fallout, because I wanted something more when that moment came.

I didn’t want the tension to break out because Julian had done something wrong. And I didn’t want it to break out because Captain Molley lost his temper. I didn’t even want it to break out because Bartholomew was pulling the other men’s strings. I wanted it to be because of all three of those conditions at the very same time. In earlier scenes there was one or two of these factors, but I was using those moments to foreshadow the end when all three would come to bear at once. In the end we reach the point that every man indulges in their worse nature at one and the same time, and then there aren’t any restraints left to save them. Only then, at that climax of tension, was the story finally ready for its end.

Last of all, I started this whole story with the idea of tales that begin with a key premise and end with a key culmination. In Boat of Three we began with this idea of a naval captain, a nervous sailor, and a scheming pirate caught together in a boat. It was a simple idea, one that can literally be summed up in a single sentence, but which already suggested all manner of drama.

The story ended with a single idea, too. Right from the get-go I had in mind this scene of Julian being cajoled into killing Captain Molley, leaving the door wide open for him to be murdered in turn. I had a clear image of a snake-in-the-grass mastermind that lay motionless and smiling in the bottom of the boat as lives were destroyed around him. And so the pivotal ending derives directly from the pivotal beginning.

And as I mentioned, each of these men’s personal contribution to the ending was rehearsed in individual scenes beforehand. I showed something about each of them, and then I showed it again later. This is a key pattern of storytelling: saying something and then restating it. On Monday I’d like to look more closely at this notion of reinforced messages, and then we’ll be off with a new tale on Thursday.

Boat of Three: Part Four

blur boat close up paper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“What?!” Captain Molley shot out of his sleep and looked about wildly, trying to make sense of what was going on. His eyes settled on Bartholomew slumped in the bottom of the boat, a small amount of blood pooled under his head. “What have you done?” he cried, and reached down to check Bartholomew’s pulse.

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek uncomfortably and lowered his oar back into the water. “He was–he was taunting me.”

“So you brained him?!”

“I–I didn’t mean to. It just–I lost my temper.”

“No, you’ve been itching to murder him ever since we brought him aboard. You just waited for me to go to sleep, then killed him because you can’t stand him, didn’t you?”

“Captain you don’t know how it is!” Julian snapped. “Every day he sits there behind me, and every minute I expect to feel a knife slipping between my ribs. You take your rest and I have no one to watch my back!”

“And so you tried to kill him…” Captain Molley concluded.

Julian blinked at that. “Tried? You mean? He’s–“

“Still alive…for now.”

Captain Molley drew back from Bartholomew and levelled Julian with a terrible stare. He was silent a very long time, and Julian fidgeted a great deal, coming to the cusp of speaking a several times, but backing down each time.

“What am I to do with you, Julian?” Captain Molley finally asked. “What am I to do?”

“I don’t think–“

“No, let me think! If these were normal circumstances I know exactly what I should do. You’d be locked in the brig until we made port and then tried for your crimes. But of course these are not normal circumstances. We have no brig, and no promise of ever making port. No…this is uncharted water we’re in, Julian, and it requires a different sort of law.” And as his mind settled on that thought he pushed back his coat and ran a finger along the knife at his side.

“Captain…no. Don’t do this! I’m for you, Captain! I couldn’t manage with that pirate, but there’s been any rift between you and I.”

“There is, Julian! There most certainly is a rift between us.”

“Only if you make it. I have no quarrel towards you. None!”

“And so you’d say do away with justice, I suppose? Never mind that you just tried to kill your own crew?”

“You were right, Captain, these are different waters, and we have to have different laws. But why not a more tolerable law? A kinder law! Why make it be more cruel? I’ve done wrong, I confess it, but let’s just wash it away and be shipmates.”

“Did you let Bartholomew’s wrongs wash away? Did you show a kinder law to him?” Captain Molley flicked the blade out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion.

“Please, Captain. Please!” Julian was on his knees, hands clasped over his breast, and sobbing.

“You’re not the messenger of a new gospel, Julian! You’re not here to give out grace and mercy! You’re just here to save your own, mean skin, and that’s all you’ve ever been about!”

“Help me, Captain. Oh help me!”

Captain Molley began rising to his feet. He was building up the hate in himself to carry out his wrathful justice. What would he do, he wondered. Kill the man, or only take a finger? But in his rising fervor he forgot his wound, and he carelessly let his weight fall onto the wrong side.

“Unngh!” Captain Molley cried, then collapsed backwards into the boat with a crash!

“Captain!”

Julian bounded over Bartholomew’s unconscious body and landed by his leader’s side. The boat rocked precariously, but did not tip over. Captain Molley tried to push the man away, but his strength failed him. His face was pale and heavy beads of sweat wreathed his brow. Julian had the wounded man’s jacket and shirt open in a flash and saw the infected gash there, three inches long and entirely untended.

“Captain you should have treated this!”

“Didn’t–want you to know.”

“I knew, you fool.”

Julian reached out of the boat, cupped some seawater in his hands, then scrubbed it against the wound.

“Ach!” Captain Molley moaned in pain. He looked like he might faint at any moment. “Stop it. It doesn’t matter.”

“It wasn’t that bad of a cut, but you haven’t let it heal. It’s been aggravated with all this rowing and it’s getting infected because you won’t let it close up.”

“I–have to–row.”

“No, Captain. You rest. Bartholomew and I can–” Julian came to his senses and stopped before he finished the sentence.

Even amidst his agony Captain Molley couldn’t help but smile at that irony. “You brained your last hope, Julian. Now you need his hope and you’re all alone.” Then he lost consciousness, and Julian was all alone.

Julian blinked nervously.

A few moments later and he cut the Captain’s jacket into strips and bound up his side, then left him to rest in the back. He bound up Bartholomew’s head as well, and laid him out to rest in the middle. Then he sat in the front of the boat, faced backwards, took an oar in each hand, and started to row. It was all to him now, and humbled by his guilt, he was determined to do his duty.

It was a very erratic sort of rowing that he did, though. The man didn’t know how to keep a straight heading. Of course he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but he couldn’t tell the difference between ten degrees and twenty, to say nothing of that zigzag pattern Captain had set them on. Had they been slanted a little east of their mark, or a little to the west? Julian couldn’t remember. Did he dare try to straighten out? What if he tried to guess but went even further the wrong way? Of course if Captain did recover, he would want to know how far they had progressed and in which directions, and Julian would not be able to provide that information.

As the sun started to set Julian realized it was time for his daily meal. He put up his oars and devoured his hard tack and salted meat in a single mouthful, then started to close up the bag. He paused before it was quite put away, though, and greedily eyed Captain Molley’s and Bartholomew’s portions. Would they ever be awake to eat them?

“Not now,” he shook his head. “Just not now. See what happens with them over the next day or two. If things don’t turn out well…there will be food enough then.”

He set the bag down, but he did not close it. And if one of them did die, which would be the better for him? Julian was ashamed that the thought occurred to him, and immediately pushed it from his mind.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

But in all an empty ocean, with nothing else to distract him, it was impossible to keep the questions at bay. What were the pros and cons, then, if either man were to die?

It was difficult to say that either man was more valuable to him than the other. If they ever did make it to the cove and Bartholomew was still alive, then surely the pirate would try to kill him. The pirate’s long-term survival depended on not having Julian and Captain Molley around to turn him over to the authorities, to say nothing of the fact that Julian had just pounded him in the head!

Captain Molley, however, was no friend either. He had hated Julian from the moment they first entered this craft, and would not rest until justice had been served. And given their last conversation, Captain might not still be willing to wait until they made port to turn him over to the authorities for a trial. No, Captain Molley had a personal vendetta against him now, and Julian was very right to be afraid of him.

“I have no friends here. I only have me,” he muttered. He looked about him. Took in all the open, empty sea. “But only me isn’t enough. I can’t make it on my own. I don’t even have the strength to keep rowing like this any longer.”

The food bag was calling to him. He eyed it once more and licked his lips.

“It’s as much to their benefit as mine that I keep up my strength. If they were awake they’d tell me that I should eat. They’d say that I’m their only chance…. What will they know of it anyway? If they wake up and two days’ ration is missing, how would they know that they simply weren’t unconscious for that long.”

He seized the bag and reached inside. “Just one biscuit. No better make it two…. Well, if I’m taking a whole day’s ration of biscuits, it wouldn’t do to leave the meat, now would it?”

For a moment there wasn’t a sound but the crunching of the hardtack, the gnawing of the meet, and the slurp of him licking the crumbs off his fingers. Then the glug of the bottle as he washed his sins down.

“There. Far better. Now I can really work!” So saying he took the oars and began his strokes with greater fervor. He so continued for fifteen minutes, before he realized he had not revitalized himself nearly so far as he thought. He put his hands on his knees and panted, scared that he might pass out.

“It’s just–it’s just too heavy. One man rowing three? And in such a long boat? It just–it just isn’t feasible. And for what? They’re probably dead in a day anyway, and then I’ll have been carrying their weight for nothing!”

He looked over to the two bodies, but then shook his head. “Not now…give them a chance. A day. When they’re doing even worse in a day I can rid them with a clean conscience.”

But they were not dead, nor dying. Shortly before midnight Captain Molley stirred.

“What?” he asked no one in particular. “Who’s there?”

Julian had slumped forward in sleep, which he suddenly started from. “Oh, I’m here, I’m here. It’s Julian.”

“Oh…” Captain said slowly as his mind reclaimed its memories. “We’re…still on the boat?”

“Yes, of course we are.”

“Where are we?”

“Um–I’m not too sure.”

“Which way have we been going?”

“Mostly the same as before.”

“Which way was that?”

“You don’t know?”

“I–I can’t remember it just now. You don’t know?”

“I never knew. I just turned when you told me to turn.”

Captain Molley looked up to the stars, trying to make out the constellations. But his mind was still swimming, his vision was still blurry, and he couldn’t stop his pounding headache.

“I–can’t,” he sighed. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

And the men went straight back to sleep.

Neither of them were stirred by the sunrise, it was nearly midday when Captain Molley slowly woke. He reached his hand out of the boat and cupped some water to splash on his face. His head still twinged from time to time, but at least he felt more alert now.

“You there,” he rasped out. His dry voice nearly failed him, but it was enough to awaken Julian at the front of the boat, who rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then handed Captain Molley the bottle. “Thank you,” Captain Molley said after his throat had been refreshed.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not so well.” Captain Molley took in his surroundings, noticed the cut-up jacket bound around his side, noticed the similar binding around Bartholomew’s head. Noticed the two oars at Julian’s end of the boat. “You took care of us while we slept.”

“Mmm.”

Captain Molley looked down guiltily. “I know that I am a proud man, Julian. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise. But I am not so proud that I can’t admit when I have done wrong. I lost myself for a moment there. I still say you did wrong to Bartholomew, but I was intending to do wrong as well. I thank God that He intervened in both of our behalf.”

Julian didn’t know what to say to all that.

“Right…well…best we figure things out now. For the life of me, I don’t remember a single thing that was said last night. What’s our heading?”

“I don’t know, I was just trying to follow the same line we had been going at as best I could.”

“And which way was–“

“I don’t know. I thought you would.”

Captain thought for a minute, blinking quickly as he sought for the memory in his mind. “Well I don’t know. As things are now I’d say we’re a little to the east. Would you say we’ve been going a little east this whole while, and never a little west?”

“How far over would a little west look?”

Captain pointed his right arm down the line of the boat, then raised his left arm to point at an angle to it.

“Can’t say. I might not have kept it straight enough that it didn’t stray a little that way or the other.”

“Or stray a lot?”

“I…hope not.”

Captain Molley sighed.

“I’m not a trained navigator!” Julian’s voice raised slightly. “I’m sorry Captain, but I did what I could. These were only estimates we had in the first place, weren’t they? So we’ll just have to estimate again.”

“Yes, we could, but with a wider zigzag to account for the even greater uncertainty. Much wider. And it takes more time to cover that wider arc, time that we already don’t have!”

“I did what I could!”

“But these are the facts all the same!”

Captain Molley’s head throbbed with his raising temper and he winced sharply. His hand flew to his brow, kneading it, trying to release the tension as he slowly calmed back down. “These are just the facts,” he said softly. Then, after another long pause, “And how long have I been unconscious?”

Julian was glad that Captain Molley’s head was in his hands, so that he couldn’t see how Julian chewed gnawed the inside of his cheek and braced himself for the lie. “It’s been three days.”

“Three days?!” Captain Molley looked up with incredulity, but by now Julian had molded his own face into an expression of complete sincerity.

“Yes,” Julian spoke like one telling of a great burden they have borne all alone. “Three days.”

Part Five

On Monday I spoke of characters that are sincerely good, characters that are sincerely evil, and characters that only put on a face good, willfully ignoring all the unscrupulous things that they do. In the case of this story Captain Molley is moral and strict and he owns it, Bartholomew is devious and wicked and he owns it, too. But Julian has claimed to be virtuous, while also trying to cheat and abandon his shipmates.

As I explained, the characters that an audience will respect are the ones who are honest about their true nature, and they will tend to dislike those that are two-faced. Julian is the most detestable character in this story, though not because he has done the most detestable things in his life.

With this section I tried to have him retain his petty self-delusions, but also become a more sympathetic character to the audience. Though I don’t intend for my reader to approve of his eating the other men’s food, I at least hope that they’ll appreciate how hard of a situation he is in. They don’t have to condone his behavior to still feel sorry for him.

But, of course, his situation is only getting harder now, and all because of his own deceit. Now that he has done something wrong, he must now tell lies about how long the men have been adrift at sea. And this lie will have unfortunate consequences that he has not accounted for. He is going to be caught between the horrible choice of coming forward with the truth, and being killed by his shipmates for it, or else maintaining the lie to his own destruction.

This idea of a character having painted themselves into a corner is a staple in literature. There is something fascinating about the karmic justice of a person that is impaled on their own sword. Come back on Monday as we explore this concept further, and then again on Thursday as we see how Julian falls into his own conundrum.

Boat of Three: Part Three

body of water and sand
Photo by Ion Ceban @ionelceban on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.

And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.

But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.

“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.

“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”

“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”

“It’s a claustrophobia within!”

And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.

“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”

And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.

When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.

Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.

“There! Over there!”

“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”

“But this! Over here!”

“A breaching whale.”

And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.

“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”

“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”

“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”

Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”

His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!

“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”

“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.

“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”

“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”

Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.

Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.

Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.

Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.

And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.

The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.

“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.

“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.

“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.

“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”

Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”

“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”

Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”

“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”

“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”

“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”

He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.

“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”

“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”

“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”

“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”

“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”

And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.

The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.

A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.

“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”

“What?” Julian snapped.

“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”

“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”

“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”

“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”

“So you’re a coward.”

“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”

“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”

Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”

“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”

“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”

Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.

“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”

“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.

“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”

Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!

Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.

In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.

A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.

And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.

Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.

With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!

Boat of Three: Part Two

grayscale photo of boat on water
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Part One

Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”

“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”

“You can’t be serious!”

Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”

“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”

“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”

“I am in your situation.”

“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”

“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”

“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”

Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”

“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”

“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”

“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.

Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.

“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.

“Just the irony of it all.”

“What irony?”

“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”

“Where’s the irony in that?”

“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”

“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.

“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”

“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”

“Well then, what is our bearing?”

Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.

“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”

Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.

“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”

“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”

“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.

“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”

Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.

“Show me that you know where we are.”

“Without a pen?”

“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”

Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.

“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”

“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.

“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.

“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”

He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.

“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.

“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”

Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”

Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.

“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”

“I do!”

“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”

Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.

“Useless.”

“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”

“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.

“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”

Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.

Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”

Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”

“Nearly straight north.”

“Nearly.”

“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”

“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”

“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”

“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.

“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”

“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.

“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”

Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.

“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”

So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.

But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.

What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.

It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.

“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”

The other two nodded.

“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”

“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”

“A twenty hour sprint!”

“What would you have us do, Julian?”

Julian had no answer for that.

“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“

“Why him?”

“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”

“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”

I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.

“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”

Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.

“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.

“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”

“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”

But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”

Julian’s eyes widened in hurt.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I discussed how many stories feature a sense of hostility between protagonists, where they must work together, but do not like each other. In many cases, they don’t even trust each other.

That is certainly the case with my current story, and nowhere is that more clear than in the last exchange of this section. Bartholomew wears his cynical views on his sleeve, Julian is very vocal of his distrust of Bartholomew and his disagreement with the Captain Molley’s every decision, and with companions like these, who can blame Captain Molley and his own statement of doubt in them at the end.

But of course, by affirming his distrust in the other men, Captain Molley weakens their ability to trust him as well. Now they know what he thinks: that they might kill him for their own gain. And knowing that he thinks that, it doesn’t take much to start wondering how his own sense of loyalty to them is being eroded. What if he were to decide the only to way to be safe from their betrayal was to betray them first?

There is a significant moment in this final exchange, the part where Captain Molley sits in silent contemplation before announcing that he will indeed sleep in the back of the boat. I actually knew full well what he was thinking about, that moment where Julian suggested he wouldn’t rescue a third sailor, even if it was a proper shipmate. I went back and forth about whether I should share that part of his thought-process with the reader or not. In the end I chose not to, and I would like to consider the power in leaving elements of your character shrouded. On Monday I would like to explore this concept more, and then we will continue our voyage of distrust with the third section of Boat of Three next Thursday.

Boat of Three: Part One

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“Come to, man! I say, come to!”

A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.

“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.

Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!

“Row!”

Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.

“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.

Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!

“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.

“ROOOOW!!!”

Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.

But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.

Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.

There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.

At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.

“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”

“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”

“But–the rest of the crew?”

“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”

Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.

“And the marauders?” he asked.

“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”

Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.

“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”

The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”

“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”

“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”

“Yes.”

“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”

“Yes.”

“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”

“No.”

“How much farther is it?”

“Farther.”

“We can’t last seven weeks!”

“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”

Hope?!

“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.

“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.

“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”

To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.

They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”

“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”

They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.

“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”

“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–“

His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.

“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”

“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.

“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–“

“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”

“But sir!”

“Pull him up!”

Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.

“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.

The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”

“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.

The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.

“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”

Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.

“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.

“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”

“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but  never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”

“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”

“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”

The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.

“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”

Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.

“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”

“What–?”

“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”

“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”

“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”

All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.

“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”

“What?”

“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”

“And you know how to get there?”

“Aye,” the pirate nodded. “I do.”

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday we spoke about stories that are built around a single, critical idea. They either begin with a compelling premise, or they build up to a single lynch-pin finale. In some cases they do both.

Wait Until Dark, for example, opens with a very strong premise. A blind woman has unwittingly come into possession of a doll smuggled with drugs. A trio of criminals descend on her home, intent upon getting it from her by any means possible. This sharp imbalance of power makes the story fascinating to us, right from the get-go. It is a strong foundation, one which amply supports all the twists and turns that follow.

But then, all those twists and turns are actually working towards a penultimate finale. Everything that has come before is setting up for the final confrontation between that woman and the lead villain, after he has decided enough of all the games, he’s just going to hurt her until she gives him what he wants. They face each other down in a battle of wits, in which the woman proves that she has been severely underestimated by these men.

The premise suggests a great imbalance, where the poor woman is helpless. The payoff rejects that notion of helplessness, and changes all character and audience perceptions in a single stroke.

In this first section of this story we see how I am trying to start things off with my own compelling premise. The idea is very simple: a noble captain, a surly sailor, and a cutthroat pirate are alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, tied together under the most tenuous of stalemates. The pirate claims to know the location of the only refuge for miles, which is the crux of the bond between them. This, I feel, is a very promising premise, it is a foundation sown with intrigue, strong enough to support all manner of twisting threads, character drama, and rising tension.

These men are going to have to work together, but they certainly aren’t going to trust one another. And that friction is going to continue building up until it breaks out in our pivotal finale. Hopefully this will result in a story that, like Wait Until Dark, has two all-important lynch-pins. One at the very beginning and one at the very end, with a rich and engrossing story laid out in between.

But before we see it through, I want to say a little bit about that tension and friction between my main characters. It turns out that this sense of a fragile alliances is a staple of story-telling. There has long been a tradition of characters being bound together by need, but also harboring deep mistrust for one another. The friction of having to be together, but not wanting to be, is a place we love to experience as an audience. Let’s take a closer look at why that is with our next post, and then we’ll see how I maintain that tension in the next section of Boat of Three.