I’ve always been interested in movies with a limited cast of characters. Take, for example, the 2013 film Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The entire film takes place in a man’s car as he makes a long drive. Along the way he has a number of intense phone conversations, all dealing with a life-changing situation that has just come up. Obviously there are other characters involved at the opposite end of those calls, but it is very much a one-man show.
Then there’s Gravity, also from 2013, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts carrying out a mission in space. A sweeping cloud of debris takes out their entire crew, leaving them as the lone survivors, desperately looking for a way back into the atmosphere before the cloud of debris circles the earth and comes for another pass. George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it further then the first act, and so we are left with one singular character again.
Another example would be All is Lost, which, wouldn’t you know it, was also from the year 2013! In this film Robert Redford’s character is alone at sea when his yacht floods, leaving him stranded in the middle of the ocean on an inflatable raft. Not only is the entire film limited to the perspective of this singular character struggling to survive, he also happens to be a particularly silent character. There are almost no words spoken at all throughout the movie.
You might wonder how any film could work with such a limited set of characters. But for how limited they might seem, each of these movies provides a compelling narrative, significant character development, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas. This claim might seem less preposterous when you realize that while most films do have more than just one or two main characters, they usually max out at three or four.
Fewer Faces Than You Realize)
Just last week I finished watching Casablanca, one of the most beloved films of all time. Much of the film takes place in a bustling club, with dozens of characters filing in and out, ordering drinks, gambling at the roulette wheel, and selling contraband. But what stood out to me most as I watched this movie was how almost all of these characters are little more than set dressing, used to establish the mood of the film, but having no meaningful contribution to the central arc.
At the heart of this film there are really only three characters: Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Captain Renault. These are the only characters who ever show any development, the only ones with shifting feelings and objectives, and the only ones who change each other over time.
At the beginning of the film Rick is a disillusioned cynic, trying to hide from the life of passion he once led before his heart was crushed by Ilsa Lund. Captain Renault is somewhat similar to Rick, though he hides his true self behind a mask of careless joviality. Then Ilsa arrives on the scene, arm-in-arm with another man, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to confront his old wounds and he and Ilsa exchange a few heated barbs.
But those insults only prove that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Rick finds himself slowly thawed by the shadow of the love he once held, first into bitter anger, but then into something more pure. By a series of events finds himself in possession of all that he needs to remove Victor Laszlo, clearing the way for him and Ilsa to run away together.
But now that he has awoken to love he has also awoken to his old sense of honor and dignity. And so he sacrifices himself to save Ilsa and Victor, arranging for them to leave the city together. He says goodbye to the woman he cares for, though this time on his own terms, and this honest departure allows the love to remain between them.
But then comes the complication with Captain Renault. For saving Ilsa and Victor required Rick to cross his old friend. He doesn’t want to kill Renault, but he must use him against his will for a moment, after which he promises to turn himself over to Renault’s superios and face all of the consequences that come. But when the moment comes for Captain Renault to exact his revenge he doesn’t. Like Rick, he sees the opportunity to finally redeem himself and he takes it. As they walk off Rick announces that he believes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
And that’s it. Three characters and no more. I would even say it is really only two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, with Captain Renault only being a supporting player until the very final act.
Aren’t You Forgetting Something?)
But you might ask what about Victor Laszlo? Or Major Strasser, the villain who weaves the very trap around Laszlo and Ilsa which Rick must deliver them from? I maintain that these are supporting characters only. They are entirely single-dimensional. Each is a single, unyielding force in opposite directions that the main characters then pivot and weave around. They are present only to make the actual drama possible, they do not actually play in the game themselves.
And everyone else you see in the movie? Set dressing. They are there to set the tone, to provide flavor and humor, and even just to distract you from the fact this story is really only about a very few people.
And that’s alright. Because as it turns out, writing a story for central characters becomes exponentially more difficult for each one that is added to the plot. When too many faces are forced into the center some of them are usually left half-baked or else everything is too muddled to make any sense of. It is always better to write a story of a few characters well and dress it up nicely, than to overcomplicate a story to its own demise.
And that is going to be one of my guiding principles in my new story: Covalent. Last Wednesday I introduced a single character, and in his thoughts I made mention to two others. And that’s it. That is going to be the entire central cast for the entire rest of the story. Yes, there will be other creatures and entities that lurk about, but all the central plot is going to be focused on the interplay of these three key players. Come back on Wednesday to see what I mean.
After finishing he finished the preparations for dinner, Tharol returned the poisoned bottle of wine, seal firmly reattached, back to the cellar. Then he carried the pots and pans out of the kitchen and to the scullery to help Golu finish with the cleaning.
The hardest thing to do now was keep a calm demeanor. He had to act as if today was just like any other. He couldn’t start acting jittery, that would make Inol and Beesk suspcious, and Reis, and Master Palthio. He had to pretend that he was totally duped, completely unaware of all the other threads being pulled around him.
Fortunately, cleaning the pots was a good way for him to get his anxieties out in a not-so-obvious way. He scrubbed at them as vigorously as he could, letting the jitters work out through his fingers as he went. In no time at all he and Golu had the task done and made their way up to the main hall to ring the bell for dinner.
A few minutes later and all of the boys were gathered together at the table. As before, Tharol avoided making eye contact with anyone, too afraid of what he might betray if his gaze was held for too long.
“Golu, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but this dinner is beneath your usual standard,” Master Palthio said as he took a bite with his fork and a little sip of wine. Tharol tried to hide his anxiety deep down. “I’m not sure what it is,” Master Palthio continued, “just everything is a little off-taste.”
“Oh…” Golu said blankly. “Sorry.”
Tharol breathed an inward sigh of relief. He didn’t want Reis to hear that he had swapped chores. That would be unusual for Tharol, and the last thing he wanted was for Reis to know he had been behaving unusually.
Master Palthio shrugged. “Just an observation, Golu. Don’t worry too much about it.”
He then turned to address the boys as a whole. “Well, I suppose we had better get things ready for the evening, don’t you? Golu, Bovik, you’re on evening watch, go relieve Janeao and Avro so that they may have their meal. Then we’ll–“
A strange expression fluttered over Master Palthio’s face and he leaned back again. He looked up to the ceiling, as if waiting for something to pass. Then small spasms started to pass over his face, symptoms of an irritating, recurring pain.
“Master?” Bovik asked, concern in his voice. “Is everything alright?”
“I–well–I’m not so sure.” Master Palthio brought his head downwards and kneaded his brow with his hands. “I have these strange spasms coming over me. I thought they would pass after a moment, but–” he winced sharply as the pain spiked.
“Master!” several of the boys cried as they leaped to their feet.
Palthio’s quivering hands clutched at his stomach and his face contorted into a painful grimace.
“Golu, you’ve given him food poisoning!” Bovik cried.
“But I didn’t even–“
“Don’t be stupid, Bovik!” Tharol sharply interjected. “We’ve all been having the same meal. This looks worse than food poisoning to me. We need to get a doctor!”
“No, I–” Master Palthio began, then suddenly lurched his head back away from the table and retched violently onto the floor.
“Get him a bucket!” Reis cried.
A few more heaves and Master Palthio had deposited his entire meal on the floor. He slumped back in his chair, exhausted, but he looked like he finally had some reprieve from the pain.
“I’m alright, boys,” he said faintly. “I’m alright. I’m just going to–going to need some rest. If a couple of you could support me back to my chambers I think I’ll turn in.”
All the boys moved forward to help, but Bovik and Golu reached him first. Each of them took an arm around their shoulders and the three of them ambled towards the Southern Wing where Master Palthio’s chambers waited.
Tharol turned to the remaining boys: Beesk, Inol, and Reis. The very last people he wanted to be alone in a room with right now. Inol and Beesk were nearest to him, and the two of them turned to face him, each bearing the same stupefied stare. Behind them Reis also made eye contact with Tharol, silently gesturing to the other boys with a cocked eyebrow.
Tharol would have liked nothing more than to lunge at him. Now he knew exactly what Reis had done with the wine he stole!
“Reis, did you want to clean up the mess,” he said, his voice came out strangely high-pitched from the anger he was trying to suppress. “Why don’t the rest of us circle round? Do a sweep of the area and make sure everything is secure? We can’t afford to have any vulnerabilities while our Master is unwell.”
It was a thin excuse, but everyone present saw it as a cover-up for different reasons. Reis would assume that Tharol was suspicious of Beesk and Inol and wanted a moment alone with them to get to the bottom of things. Beesk and Inol would assume Tharol wanted to check whether anyone had accidentally brought their poisoned wine to the table. As such, everyone nodded in agreement and Tharol, Beesk, and Inol made their way out to the courtyard.
“To the cellar,” Inol hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of Reis.
The three of them took the long way around the barracks, and soon they were crouched down among the bottles, swinging lamps overhead.
“Look at this!” Beesk exclaimed. “One of the bottles is broken. The other’s still here though.”
“Have the seals been tampered with?” Inol asked.
“Let me see…no…they’re both still secure.”
Each of them looked quizzically back to Tharol to see what he thought.
He paused for a fraction of a second, debating whether he should play this off as if he were relieved. He could just say that whatever had happened to Master Palthio…it didn’t look like it could be related to their poisoned wine. But no, he decided. That was not what they would expect from him.
“So what if the seals aren’t broken?” he demanded. “All that proves is that no one else used the wine. So it had to be one of us! And why’s that one bottle broken? Someone poured out a glass and then shattered it to hide the fact it was running low?!”
“Now you hang on just a second!” Inol fired back. “Are you trying to suggest one of us poisoned Master Palthio?!”
“Perhaps I am!”
“Why would we do that?” Beesk protested. “That doesn’t help us at all.”
“Makes him that much less likely to get involved in things tonight, doesn’t it?”
Inol sighed. “Alright…I see your point Tharol. But I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t poison it, I trust that you two didn’t, so what else is there to say?”
“Yeah,” Beesk chimed in. “I thought you were more trusting than this Tharol.”
Tharol sighed and made as if he were taking their arguments in. That was good enough. “Alright,” he finally said. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done…I’m just going saying there better not be any more surprises tonight!”
“We’re all on the same page there,” Inol reassured.
“We should get back before Reis starts getting suspicious,” Beesk said. The other two agreed and they quickly returned to the main hall. Reis wasn’t there, though, and Tharol didn’t like that. He hadn’t considered when he left with Beesk and Inol that he was leaving Reis alone to do whatever he pleased yet again.
“Well…you two make sure everything’s ready for tonight,” Tharol said. “I’m going to check on Master Palthio.”
As soon as he was apart from the other two Tharol started sweeping the grounds, glancing through each window and round ever corner for any sign of Reis. He scolded himself for having not realized that Reis would have had some nefarious intent for the poisoned wine he stole. He wondered if there were any other poisonings likely to occur. At first he thought no, because no one else at the table had become sick, but maybe Reis had figured that would look too suspicious. Maybe Reis had other traps meant for all the rest of the order. One thing was for sure, Tharol wouldn’t be taking a drink of anything for the rest of the night, nor indeed leaving himself alone in a corner.
With that thought Tharol took in his current surroundings and realized he had already done exactly that! During his search he had ambled into the corner where the barracks met the storage. He turned himself around, just as the barracks door flung open in front of him and Avro, Bovik, and Janeao came storming out.
“There he is!” Bovik cried and the other two boys spread out so that the three of them could move at him in a pincer movement.
“Hey, what is this?!” Tharol exclaimed.
“Come with us,” Avro ordered. As he spoke each of the boys drew knives out of their cloaks. “Just come with us and you won’t come to any harm.”
Tharol backed up until he hit the wall. “Are you guys crazy! Put those knives away!”
“It’s alright, Tharol,” Bovik soothed. “We don’t want to use them. We will if we have to, but we don’t want to.” He turned to Janeao. “Throw him the rope.”
The three boys halted their advance, but remained in an alert, defensive stance. Janeao stowed his blade, reached into his tunic, pulled out a length of rope, and flung it through the air to Tharol’s feet.
“Tie your hands,” Bovik instructed. “We won’t come any closer while you do. After that we’ll put away the knives and all go to Master Palthio. Nice and simple, see?”
Tharol picked up the rope. It was coarse and rough.
“What is this, Bovik?” he asked quietly. “What’s going on?”
“We know what you did, Tharol,” Bovik sad softly, even sadly. “The game’s over, alright? We know all about the poison.”
For the first time Tharol noticed the jug of wine fastened to Avro’s belt. He wasn’t near enough to see the broken wax seal, but he was sure it was the one Reis had taken, the one that had been used to poison Master Palthio. No doubt it had been planted somewhere that would incriminate Tharol.
Reis was taking care of two birds with one stone.
“Alright,” he said, then twisted his hand around the end of the rope and swung it out like whip! The other boys ducked to the ground just in time to dodge the flail, and while they were down Tharol surged forward, leaped over Bovik’s crouched form, and sprinted for the courtyard.
Just as he passed the edge of the barracks a dark blur rushed at him. Golu slammed in from the side and threw Tharol to the ground! For a moment Tharol lost consciousness, then awareness came back slowly. He remained dazed for a few minutes, only vaguely aware of the other boys binding his wrists with the rope and carrying him off to Master Palthio. He was in for it now!
Thus at the end of my last chapter I had Tharol increase the toxicity of the wine to a point that it might be lethal for Reis. I realize that today’s chapter might feel like it then distracts from that element of suspense by focusing more on Reis’s schemes, and how he is removing Master Palthio and Tharol out of the picture, but I have a specific reason for having spent some time here.
In the next section Tharol will remain incapacitated. He is the only one that can prevent Reis from drinking that poisoned wine and now he will be physically incapable of doing so. The wheel has been set in motion and the only one that can call out a warning has been removed. I believe that this will accentuate the tension in the moment where Reis finally does take that wine, but setting up for it required me to briefly shift the focus elsewhere.
In the next section I will ramp the tension back up around the poisoned cup, by pausing around his moment of actually drinking it, making the audience wonder if he will go through with it or not.
I promise that we’ll get to this moment of catharsis soon. This story has extended much longer than I had originally anticipated, but now I am down to the last three chapters. At this point I would say I am close enough to the end to compare it to the original version of The Favored Son, the version that strayed into a different path than I had originally intended. I want to share how well this current attempt has done at meeting my original vision, and how I feel about the two stories compared against one another. I also want to identify why I feel the first one went off into such different waters to begin with.
“You want to poison Reis?!” Tharol asked in shock.
“Well not lethally,” Beesk said quickly. “Just enough to make him sick that night. We’ll get some Tinstin next time we go to market. A couple grams in his dinner cup and two hours later he’ll be bolting for the latrine. He’ll be busy retching a few minutes, long enough for us to have the gates opened and closed like nothing every happened.”
“You’ve thought this through.”
“Well of course we have!” Inol exclaimed. “This isn’t exactly the sort of thing you leave up to chance, now is it?”
“Alright. So what’s our plan from here on.”
“I’ll get the Tinstin,” Inol offered. “I know just the apothecary that’ll have it in the backroom.”
“And I’m going to stash everything we need on the barracks over the next couple weeks,” Beesk added. “Two barrels of oil to make sure the gates don’t make any noise that night, a rope in case we need to improvise, and a couple bird-whistles for us to signal each other if anything goes wrong.”
“Alright,” Tharol nodded. “And me?”
“You’re pretty close to Reis aren’t you?”
“Sure, we’re friends I guess.”
“Great. Keep close to him and see what if he suspects anything. He was there when the statue lady first met us and he’d roast us all if he knew what was going on. You have to let us know if he so much as catches of a whiff of what we’re doing.”
Tharol nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. And where are each of us during the night of the entry?”
“One of Beesk and I will be opening the gates and getting payment,” Inol recited. “The other will be watching Reis and running distraction if he starts to come back early. And you will be waiting in the barracks, watching for if any of the boys try to come out for any reason. You start blowing on that bird whistle if they do.”
“I want to be out on the field with you.”
“No,” Inol shook his head firmly.
“It was very clear requirement of the statue lady,” Beesk added. “We can bring a third in to help with setup, but she only trusts the two of us to greet her at the entrance.”
“Alright,” Tharol tried to wave it off like he didn’t care. “I’ll make sure Reis stays in the dark in the meantime.”
“Excellent!” Reis smiled when Tharol told him the entire scheme. “We’ll do it!”
“Of course, we’ll make sure that absolutely everything plays exactly the way they want.”
“But they’re going to poison you!”
Reis waved that away. “They’re going to think that they poison me. I’ll fake a drink at dinner and then make like I’m sick during the first hour of watch. We have to make them believe that everything is going according to plan. We can’t catch them red-handed if they’re not confident enough to expose themselves.”
“I suppose not…”
And so Tharol found himself helping cover for Inol at the market just a few days later. Golu was with them, and so it fell on Tharol to keep the boy distracted while Inol obtained the Tinstin.
“We could have Inol grab the salt and wine if you want to help me with the whetstones, Golu,” he proposed.
“Sure,” Golu shrugged.
“Yep, works for me,” Inol said brightly. “Got my money?”
Tharol counted out the appropriate amount and sent him on his way.
“Well I guess we’d better–” Tharol started to say to Golu, but he was interrupted by a large commotion coming from behind them. For some reason the marketplace throng was pushing itself backwards into the two boys. They spun around and saw that the crowd was clearing a column in their middle, making a wide pathway down the throng.
“What’s this?” Tharol asked.
“It’s Lord Amathur,” Golu answered.
Tharol looked back to the clearing and sure enough a procession of guards now moved down it. They were soon followed by a man wearing brightly colored silks and a three-foot feather sticking out of his cap. This was the closest Tharol had even been to Lord Amathur, near enough to make out the features of his round, boyish face. He was all smiles and joviality, waving at the merchants and calling many of them by name. They responded in kind and several of them held out samples of their wares as gifts. He waved his hand at that and tutted, but still seemed charmed by their gesture.
“He seems a popular man,” Tharol observed.
As Tharol continued to watch a strange gravelly noise started to rise, though, growing and growing until it became a tremendous cacophony, drowning out all the sounds of mirth and frivolity. Craning his head to the side Tharol finally saw the cause of the noise. A hundred feet behind Lord Amathur, but still a part of his procession, there came into view thirty slaves, stripped to their loincloths, straining with all their might against powerful ropes set around their shoulders. And all of those ropes ran back to the same singular stone, a massive boulder, shaped like a low cylinder, at least twelve feet across. It must have weighed thousands of pounds! All those slaves dug their heels into the cobbled road in unison and lurched the burden forward inch-by-inch. The flat underside of the millstone scraped horribly across the cobblestones and gouged the road in places. It would take weeks to repair.
“It’s like–it’s like when we have to do our hauls with the stone,” Tharol observed, though obviously on a much larger scale. “This is a punishment?”
None of the rest of the crowd appeared particularly surprised by the display, though many of them covered their ears and took a step back from the road. Some of them even started returning to their usual business now that Lord Amathur was advancing out of view.
The scene wasn’t quite over yet, though. All of a sudden a group of merchants began to scream as four horsemen charged through the crowd!
“Out of the way!” the riders roared, then left it to the rabble to clear out before being trampled. Before long they had entered the roadway and skidded to a halt before the slaves bearing the stone. All four of them drew their swords, eliciting more screams from the crowd, but they only used them to hack at the ropes binding the slaves to their stone. As soon as four of the prisoners had been freed they they reached their hands down and offered them an escape. Three of them shrunk back immediately, hands held up in pleading, as if begging to not be liberated. The last slave looked hesitantly to his fellows, then back to his would-be emancipators.
“Quickly!” the forefront rider strained, glancing up the road to where Lord Amathur and his guardsmen were sprinting back down the route, charging to the disruption!
With one more look to his fellows the hesitant slave leaped up, took his savior’s arm, and was carried onto the steed. As one the other slaves howled in a fury and flung themselves at him, scrabbling madly to pull him back down, in pieces if necessary.
With a click of his spurs the horseman lurched out of their grasp, just as Lord Amathur’s guards arrived on the scene. Rather than trade blows the group of riders thundered back through the throng of merchants and down the same back alley from which they had appeared, the royal guards in hot pursuit.
“Do you think they’ll catch them?” Tharol asked Golu breathlessly.
Golu didn’t answer, though. His eyes were locked on another scene, and Tharol realized that all the crowd had just gone deathly silent. Following Golu’s gaze Tharol saw that Lord Amathur had not joined his guards in the chase, he had slowed his run to a bracing walk instead, and was only now approaching the mass of huddled slaves. His smile was long gone, his face was steel.
“One?” he turned to the taskmasters standing silently on either side of the cowering prisoners. They nodded.
Lord Amathur reached down a hand and pulled one of the slaves up to his feet. The other hand drew his sword and in one motion and plunged it through the slave! All the other slaves wailed, but the price had been paid, no more of them had to be slain that day. Lord Amathur ripped off the dead man’s loincloth, used it to clean his sword, then turned and left without another word, leaving nothing but heavy, silent air behind him.
Tharol turned to Golu in utter shock and saw that the boy was just as dumbfounded as he was.
“What was that?” Tharol askedin horror, not really expecting an answer.
“It was something terrible, Tharol. That’s all it was.”
A few moments later and the crowd of merchants began moving again, but with a very subdued atmosphere now. No one dared to even speak above a low mutter. Tharol and Golu finished their business as quickly as possible and kept their silence the whole way back to the keep. Inol had been in a different wing of the marketplace and missed the entire drama, but after hearing a brief recounting of it he had the good sense to keep his silence as well.
Tharol was lost in his own thoughts, trying to even fathom what sort of reasons could be behind the scene he had just witnessed. He also kept wondering what sort of man Lord Amathur must be. He kept picturing him in that moment of advancing with such a cold and precise malice. He had never known someone could be so firm and so cruel.
Tharol was so lost in his thoughts that he even forgot about Inol’s plot to secure the Tinstin. It was only when they came to the keep’s courtyard and Beesk approached them, eyebrows raised in an unspoken query, that he remembered about the plan.
“Hey Beesk,” Inol greeted. “Help us carry the wine down to the cellar?”
Tharol and Beesk understood the cue, and together the three of them filled their arms with the clay pitchers and made their way into the dark underbelly of the keep.
“So? Did you get it?” Beesk demanded as soon as the cellar door was safely shut behind them.
“Yeah, I got it,” Inol replied.
“Well where is it?”
“Didn’t exactly want to be seen coming into camp carrying a whole sack of toxic compounds, now did I? I hid it.”
“A whole sack?! We don’t need that much.”
“Well that’s how much I was given.”
“So where did you put it?”
Inol nodded his head downward, towards the jug of wine he was carrying.
“In there?” Tharol asked.
“That’s right. All ready to pour out for Reis at the Night Watch!”
“An entire sack of poison in there?! That’ll kill him for sure!”
“Not all. As soon as I had enough in the jug I discarded the rest in an alley.”
“How much did you put in then?”
“I don’t know. Half?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a bit less?”
“Let me see that.”
Tharol grabbed the pitcher and jerked off the stopper. He gave it a deep inhale and immediately perceived a strong, bitter aroma mixed with the scent of wine.
“No, this won’t do,” Tharol said. “Beesk, hand me that empty pitcher. He took the vessel and poured the poisoned wine into it until each jug was only half full. “Now some fresh wine,” he ordered. This he used to fill the second half of each jug, then gave both another whiff. The bitter aroma was still there, but faint enough that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it. “There,” he said. “That’s more about the potency we want. Let’s hope that Master Palthio doesn’t take inventory anytime soon.”
“But what if you made it too weak?” Beesk asked.
“I seriously doubt that…. Honestly I’m still not sure that this is diluted enough.”
“And we don’t need two jugs. We don’t even need one! Just a single cup. Suppose one of these jugs gets brought up tonight at dinner and we all get sick!”
“Good point. Let’s stow these in the back where no one will grab them for a while. We’ll have to get rid of them at some point after.”
“Aren’t you afraid of forgetting which ones are the right ones?”
Tharol paused. That was a good point. “We need some way to mark these, a way to be sure that they hadn’t been handled. And marked in a way that would be inconspicuous to all the other boys.”
“I’ve got it,” Inol said, and reaching up he lowered one of the lanterns from the ceiling. “Let me see those jugs, Tharol.”
Tharol handed them over and Inol tipped the lantern sideways over them, dribbling a few drops of wax between the stopper and the body of the jug.
“There!” he proclaimed. “A little seal. So small no one will notice but us.”
“Yes, well done,” Beesk approved. “And if we ever notice that the seal is broken…trouble.”
“I think if anyone opens either of these jugs we’ll know about it anyway,” Tharol sighed, laying the jugs in the back corner of the cellar and stacking safe jugs in front of them. “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t like this setup. There’s still too much chance that we’ll get the whole order poisoned!”
Inol and Beesk’s eyes narrowed.
“But I guess it’s the best plan we’ve got. I’ll go along with it.”
On Monday I spoke about a few of the different shapes that a character’s arc might take. I observed that I had Tharol slowly pursuing a path of suspicion and doubt when suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath and he realized that everyone else was coming to be suspicious of him instead. Then he went from curious to dejected, numbly going through his days with as little feeling as possible.
Now he has entered a new arc, leaning much more heavily into his relationship with the order’s more unsavory characters. Of course he cannot really rely on these pretend friends. As previously implied, he will only grow more and more isolated until he is totally alone.
For now, though, I want to turn my attention to a particular scene in this chapter, the one where Tharol and Golu witness Lord Amathur’s procession and the riders coming to free the slaves.
I got so far in the scene as Lord Amathur walking through the crowd and saluting the merchants, but then came to a dead stop. I knew the second half of this scene needed something that would portray Lord Amathur in a villainous light, but each time I tried to write it I kept running it into the most bland of clichés. Usually some variation of an innocent passerby crossing Lord Amathur on something trivial and Amathur letting out his rage on them in a moment of disproportionate violence. A thoroughly overused and unimaginative scene if there ever was one.
All too often writers fall back on clichés like these instead of putting in the work for ingenuity. They craft a story through tropes instead of through original ideas. And as I just shared, I can certainly understand the temptation to write a story this way. I have experience that temptation firsthand.
Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to publish something so cheap, and I did dig deeper until I found something more imaginative. With my next post I would like to examine why it is that we fall back on cliché, and what we can do to fight the pull of it. Come back on Thursday to read about that.
Plot-holes are potholes. They take what might have otherwise been a smooth and pleasant ride, and violently shake you out of the moment. The worst thing is that they can come up in a story that you were thoroughly enjoying, and want to keep on enjoying, but now that you’ve seen the glaring error you can’t unsee it. Plot-holes are very difficult to avoid though, and the more imaginative and fantastic your work of fiction is, the more likely that you’ve introduced systems and rules which collide with one another in unintended ways.
I discovered this first-hand with my short story: Revelate. This was a sci-fi/fantasy piece in a world of automata creating and destroying one another. There were four main characters, each of which I composed separately, and then tried to weave together in one overarching narrative. As if all that wasn’t enough, I designed the story to exist in one large cycle, the final scene literally concluding where the first one began, like one of those ancient epics that used the eternal rounds of the gods to try and explain the repeating seasons.
And, to make a long story short, it has plot-holes. I knew they were likely, I spent a great amount of time finding and ironing them out before publishing the piece…but a few weeks after I finally posted the story I still found one that remained. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.
Tied in Knots)
In writing that story I found that my greatest source of inconsistencies came when I started bending the story to fit through a desired narrative beat. I imagine that this is the case for many other story-tellers as well.
You really want this particular confrontation to happen in a particular way, and you go to great lengths to make sure that it happens. But as you tug at the corners of your story to make them fit, you inadvertently tear the fabric somewhere else.
That tear might occur in a total plot-hole, or it might occur as a hand-wavy-don’t-think-too-much-about-it convenience. In either case, though, the tapestry is comprised in the name of narrative intrigue.
It’s an understandable failing, but here are two techniques that can help to avoid it.
Match Complexity to Scale)
A large reason why I struggled with plot-holes in Revelate was because it had a very small scope, with only a few characters and scenes, and yet in that small space was filled with many dense systems, with a lot of intersections between them all. The more a story is bursting at the seams with ideas, the more likely it is to have some incongruities between them.
I won’t name names, but I think we can all readily call to mind examples of this in popular media. A story exists first as a book, then is extended in the movie adaptation, gets a spin-off television series, and every remaining gap in its timeline is filled with comics. The result? A world that is so saturated with ideas that they are bound to contradict one another sooner or later. Many popular franchises start off coherent, but then began to buckle under their own weight further down the line.
An example of a story that chose a level complexity that matched its scale is that of the Disney animated classic The Sword in the Stone. This is a rich and magical story, where the viewer is regularly treated with fanciful delights. A particular favorite of mine is the bit where Merlin magicks all of the dishes to start cleaning themselves.
In all, I can think of seven magical segments, which might seem pretty dense for an eighty minute film, but none of these sequences ever contradict each other. The secret to this is that actually there though there are seven magical sequences, there are actually only two or three unique ideas that are then cleverly dressed up in different ways.
Merlin and Arthur turn into squirrels, fish, and birds. There is also the transfiguration battle Merlin has with Madam Mim. Each of these encounters repeat the same basic rules established with the first. Each feels distinct because the story is at a different place in each, but the mechanics are exactly the same. Similarly, the inanimate objects that come to life in Merlin’s home follow the very same procedure as the inanimate dishes that begin cleaning themselves later in the story.
Thus the writer’s cleverly limited themselves to very few systems, and kept the world into a manageable state.
World First, Narrative Second)
The other solution to managing a convoluted tale is to flip the script that normally gets writers into trouble: i.e. coming up with the story beats first, and then twisting the world to fit it. Instead, spend your time developing the world and its systems first, keeping all in perfect harmony with one another until the sandbox is complete. Then, and only then, ask yourself what sort of story could be told within these confines, and vow to never break the systems to make a narrative point. If your world is interesting and complex enough, then it should be able to support any number of different stories within it.
Isaac Asimov seemed understood this trick well enough to admit when he had not adhered to it in his “robot series.” Of those stories he said that they “offer a kind of history of the future, which is, perhaps, not completely consistent, since I did not plan consistency to begin with.”
J. R. R. Tolkien, on the other hand, spent years developing the world of Middle Earth, its cultures and languages, its factions and wars, before he ever penned the work that would become Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire volume everything remains remarkably consistent because of his world-first approach.
In my new story, Raise the Black Sun, I am endeavoring to adhere to both of these principles at the same time. I intend to show quite a number of new and interesting mechanics over the course of the story, and so I am setting it a world that is extremely vast and expansive, to ensure that the complexity will not overrun the story’s scale. A new idea might be used once, and then the story will rush so far away that there is never an opportunity for that mechanic to intersect with the next. By not trying to fill in every hole I don’t have to deal with the problem of two pieces not fitting together.
At the same time, I decided to take a world-first approach to developing this story. The entire idea for Raise the Black Sun was to just spit-ball about all sorts of crazy fantasy ideas that shared a similar vibe. There was no plot, no arc, no character whatsoever. Only after I had a clear idea of what sort of world and systems I wanted, and only after I had ensured there were no contradictions among them, then I considered what a short story in that place might look like.
Come back on Thursday, where we will see a few of the novelties I have planned for my story. Pay careful attention to how I space them out from one another, and how they suggest a work that is crafted by the world first and story second.
On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.
He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.
This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.
I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.
Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.
This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.
Using the Essence of a Story
Using the Style of a Story
Using the Plot of a Story
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Using the Essence)
As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.
For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.
Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.
Using the Style)
But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.
Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.
But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!
Using the Plot)
I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.
The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.
More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.
Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.
Yesterday I announced that I was going to be bringing back the Story of the Storyteller series, though it is being repurposed to chronicle the progress on my novel. I have mentioned this novel in previous posts, I have even shared the intro from it. But in case you weren’t aware, it is entitled With the Beast, and is set on an island which a small family has just inherited. That family comes to the island with the ambition of founding their legacy, building something that will be remarkable and enduring.
I guess if I were to compare it to any other stories I would say it’s something like Swiss Family Robinson combined with Little House in the Big Woods. However there is also a strong sense of menace to it, as the narrator of the story suggests that these are events which already transpired, ones which will conclude with his coming and destroying everyone and everything.
This story is one I have had in mind since about 2014. I have worked at it on and off throughout the years, trying to get the outline just right. That outline has changed a great deal with each iteration, most notably shifting from pure horror to something more hopeful. It wasn’t until just a couple of months ago that I made up my mind for how I want the story to end.
But as iteration after iteration goes by I have realized that I am in a never-ending cycle of plotting and outlining and refactoring, such that I will never actually get the thing written if I don’t start penning my first draft now! I have a general outline for the entire story, and a very detailed one written out for the first third.
I would like to extend that detailed outline to the end of the story, but feel I can also start writing “draft one” as I do so. To that end I have committed to outlining two scenes each day, and also writing 500 words. Yesterday I accomplished that, and today I will accomplish that. In a month I’ll give you an update on my progress, and then share about whatever lessons or insights I gained in the process.
It’s going to be a long journey, but I’m very excited for it!
On Monday I posted the first part of my new short story, which featured a character assigned a mission to carry out on a distant world. Amidst feelings of fear and doubt she transported down to that world, and her concerns were suspended by the novelty of the new terrain that she found. During this exploration she noticed a strange phenomena in the distance, and a journey to that location resulted in her meeting a new character. Finally, her discussion with that new character brought back up the assignment that she was assigned at the very beginning, and along with it all of her apprehensions.
In this way her objective remained an ever-present motivation of the story, even while I introduced other new ideas, characters, and places that will also be of importance. This way of introducing new plot and having it naturally return to your main arc is incredibly useful when you have a great many elements to introduce to the reader.
Think of the beginning of any story, where the reader has to be made aware of the characters, events, society, balance of power, driving motivations, and any mechanics unique to your story. You can’t just dump all of that on them up front with a fact-sheet, you need to drip it out piece by piece. But, while trickling out these new elements of your story you must not get totally lost in their side-plots, the core arc of your story must always be present.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roverandom we begin simply enough with a small dog and a wizard. The former upsets the latter and is turned into a toy as a result. This simple beginning establishes two of the main characters, the fact that there is magic in this story, and the dog’s great motivation: to become a real dog again.
There then begins one sequential plot after another, including trips up to the moon and down into the ocean. There are new mechanics and new characters added at a measured pace, making sure that the story never becomes overwhelming but also doesn’t grow stale. Each of these side-plots and characters never strays far from the main thrust of the story, either. Each eventually circles back to our dog’s core objective of undoing the spell he is under.
In fact, several of the side-plots in Roverandom end up being integral to the resolution of the story’s main plot. Two plots featuring different kind caretakers that Roverandom is divided in his loyalty between blend together when an unexpected relation between the two is revealed. A side-trip to the bottom of the ocean becomes essential to softening the older wizard’s heart so that eventually he will free the dog from his curse.
These different plotlines dovetailing together towards a singular whole provides a pleasant and balanced feel to the story. It makes the ending more impressive because it is only achieved by the sum of so many other parts. And so juggling between different arcs is not only beneficial at the beginning of the story, but also in bringing the whole to a satisfying close.
Of course the intro I published for With the Beast did not include the end of that novel, but it did introduce two seemingly disparate arcs. First there is one where the reader has evidently come to witness, and even to enact, some tragic destruction. The exact nature of that destruction is unclear, but its imminence looms heavy over the story’s tone. At the same time we are also being introduced to a family of four that are seeking their destiny, hoping to build a magnificent legacy on their own personal island.
These two themes stand in stark contrast to one another, and there is a strong implication that the two are going to come together in conflict. Indeed, that is the case. Throughout the rest of the story each arc will progress in greater and greater contrast such that neither narrative arc can come to their natural conclusion so long as the other remains. They therefore will break upon one another in a climatic finale.
But this idea of side-stepping between multiple plotlines is by no means limited to just the beginning or ending of a story. It also happens to be one of the best tricks for keeping the pace up in the middle of a tale. Most plots are naturally most exciting at their beginnings and at their endings, and it’s all too easy to lose a reader in the central chapters that bridge between the two.
But if the middle of one arc is paired with the beginning of another arc, then the overall experience still remains fresh. Or if the middle of the arc is paired with the climatic ending of a previous arc, then the overall experience still remains exciting.
Now there is no shortage of examples of this. Just consider the many television serials on the air today. Of course there are series where every episode is its own self-contained plot, such as with the Twilight Zone, but the ones that tell an ongoing tale need to both provide a small conclusion at the end of each episode, but also maintain an ongoing arc that extends beyond itself. Side characters will suddenly come to the forefront, new revelations will upend previous plotlines, and earlier arcs will be brought to their close.
Consider the mini-series Roots, which is a multigenerational tale of African slaves in America. As each rising generation is going to become the focus of the next episode, the series spends time establishing them with the audience even before resolving the current generation’s arc. By the time we see the end of Kunta Kinte’s story we’re already well-invested in the ongoing struggles of his daughter Kizzy.
Recently the work on my With the Beast novel hit a wall where all of its momentum suddenly seemed to evaporate. As I looked closer I realized that I was right in the middle of the tale, and I was bringing all of my introductory plotlines to a close before beginning any of the arcs for the latter half. As you might imagine, it felt like the story was finishing halfway through, and the entire pace had come to a screeching halt. Now I’m stagger out some of those arcs so that there remains an unbroken chain from start to end.
I also experimented with this in miniscule when I posted The Heart of Something Wild. Here I began with a plot about a new chief facing his impending demise. I spent some time on his fears and anxiety, but then introduced a new plot when he began caring for a wounded creature. That plot took the forefront until a new wrinkle was introduced by his closest friendship coming to an end. That falling out simultaneously began another arc for the conflict he now had with that former ally. Already plots were being picked up and dropped with no down time in between, and this was all before the story was half over!
Like I mentioned at the beginning, my new short story Glimmer has staggered its central arc of the main character’s sacrifice with that of discovering a new world and its inhabitants. With my next entry the story will further evolve with the emergence of a new enemy and, and an introduction to the souls that lie in the balance of that ensuing struggle. Then, a week later we will have the third and final section of that story, which will feature all of these separate threads finding their various resolutions in one another. I’ll see you then.
Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.
Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.
Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.
Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.
Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.
At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?
But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.
The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.
As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.
John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.
Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.
For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.
At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.
From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.
She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.
Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.
She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.
Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.
John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.
“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.
“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”
“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”
“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.
William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”
As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”
She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.
“I don’t want to, mother.”
Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”
John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”
“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.
And so they were.
This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.
As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”
Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!
After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.
By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.
Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!
Over the last four weeks we have been examining the traditional narrative roles found in most stories: the hero, the villain, the mentor, and the love interest. To aid in this I have also created narrative examples of each of these characters, Cee, Kael, the Clockmaker, and Ayla; and for each of these my focus was on being true to their role and to create a through-line for them that had its own natural beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately, though, it was never my intention to make a series of isolated vignettes, from the very beginning I had an idea for an overarching storyline that would have a theme and arc all its own. Indeed, it bears mentioning that in addition to the four character archetypes mentioned above the story itself is a fifth character, the most important of them all. It has its own wants and wrinkles, after all, and like any other character it weaves all of its disparate parts into one greater whole.
Experienced authors use their entire array of tools in order to simultaneously develop both character and story. For example, consider how a clever use of juxtaposition can be used to accomplish the threefold tasks of establishing the hero’s character in one scene, the villain’s character in the next scene, and also presenting a thesis on the contrasts between these rivals. From the first scene we understand the hero is good, from the second we understand that the villain is evil, and from the juxtaposition we understand that this difference between the two will be the determining factor in why one will succeed and the other will fail.
With the overarching theme and plot of the story in mind, we can begin to give deeper focus to our individual characters, crafting each of them to be ready for integration into that whole. The experienced author does not want a story comprised entirely of isolated scenes where only a single character’s through-line is progressed at a time. This results in a story that is flat and detached. As much as possible, the drama of every scene ought to involve two or more of the characters each coming with their own personal intentions and each leaving a little closer to their own personal conclusions because of the encounter. Indeed, when all is said and done, a proper story is nothing more than a long, elegant dance.
Of course not all of the separate character threads is necessarily going to receive the same amount of attention, nor necessarily be present from start to finish. Perhaps some characters, such as the hero and villain, may have an arc that stretches from the first to the last pages, but others like a mentor may very well have their denouement as early as in the first act. This is all well and fine, as long as each character’s line is complete. Or in other world, each character should have a complete story that is all their own. It doesn’t have to be a large or complex story, but it should be meaningful to that character and should lead to a personal conclusion that feels appropriate for them. When you don’t give each character their own narrative resolution you are left with “loose ends” and a story that feels unfinished or lazy.
As always, there may be exceptions to this rule. Perhaps you need to leave a few threads open to tie into a sequel, perhaps one of the themes of your story is that not everything in life has a tidy resolution. Just be sure that if you are deviating from this principle that you are doing so intentionally. The trap you absolutely want to avoid is where the author wants to push the main character towards a specific sequence, and facilitates it by introducing an entirely new character whose sole motivation is such as drive them towards providing that needed push. After fulfilling that purpose the character is now useless to the story and therefore falls off to the side with all their momentum going nowhere. And no, just killing them off so you don’t have to explain what happened with them is not a proper fix. If this character needs to push the hero to their needed resolution, they should are in turn also be pushed to their own natural closure as well. A still better solution, of course, is to not be introducing new characters just to fulfill a single function. If possible, look at your other main characters and see if any of them can fulfill that function instead while still staying in stride with their greater arc.
Many authors may find that introducing and sustaining character arcs are far easier tasks than bringing them to their satisfying conclusions. How and where and what should that culmination be? One common and satisfying technique is to conclude many of these threads in a single climatic sequence. Often the final scenes of a story feature the greatest levels of danger, action, or intrigue, but they can also feature the greatest levels of drama and emotion if the hopes and dreams of many hang in the balance. There is a power in a story that is able to simultaneously hand out both salvation and destruction with the same strokes of the pen. Consider the film Warrior, in which the audience has been simultaneously following the stories of two estranged brothers. They are flawed characters, but there are reasons to care for each of them and so it is agonizing as the realization sets in that their individual desires are mutually exclusive to one another. Success for either will only occur at the expense of the other. All of this builds up until the final climax where the two brothers literally fight one another to get their own way, with each impact bringing one closer to success and the other to failure. Everything comes down to this singular moment, and the choices they make here are just as meaningful as the initial ones that set them towards this conflict.
At this point we’ve considered our overall themes and story, we’ve designed each character to support that story and one another, we’ve been careful to ensure each of the characters has their own miniature through-line with a meaningful resolution, and we’ve terminated these various arcs in a satisfying conclusion. But like any complex undertaking, the work is not yet complete. The house might be built, but it is covered in dust and soot and it would be ingenuine of me to not mention all the clean-up work that follows a rough first draft. Just “mentioning” it may not seem sufficient and I don’t mean by glossing over this act of glossing over to suggest that it is either a quick or a trivial undertaking. Rather it is out of respect of just how large and complex this phase of story-crafting is that I think I had better wait for later blog posts to give it the in-depth treatment it really deserves.
There is one particular element of this clean-up process that I do believe bears special consideration here, though, one that is directly related to this act of weaving together the various threads of character and plot. This is the consideration of tone and cadence across the story as a whole. Perhaps each character had a satisfying rhythm to their arc when crafted in isolation, but now their individual scenes are separated with other plot moments in between, ones which will pull the mood of the story to any number of different places. Obviously the first consideration ought to involve ordering scenes so that the emotional tone with which one finishes naturally matches up to the tone with which the next begins. Where chronology or other considerations make this impossible, then the dissonance can be addressed by writing a short connecting sequence that changes the tone from the prior to the latter. For example a sad scene could pull away to an examination of the environment, which could gracefully shift from night to sunrise, which now allows us to descend on the more cheerful drama that is next to unfold. The art of the transition is yet another of the many tools that every author ought to take time to keep well-maintained and sharp.
Over the next few days I’ll be going through this entire process in miniature as I take each of the individual parts of the Revelate series and graft them into a single, complete tale. On Thursday I’ll present the outcome of that task, and that will conclude our time in that world. I hope to see you there for the culmination of it all.