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 on it off and on 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.