Intersecting Worlds

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Story Within a Story)

The Princess Bride is an interesting story within a story. The novel version is presented as being an abridgement of the actual story, an edit of the original down to just its “good parts.” Of course in reality there is no original, it’s all just a humorous commentary on how great stories can be weighed down by too much dross. The film version of The Princess Bride presents things a bit differently. It opens with a grandfather reading the fantasy story to his sick grandchild, which then transitions into the scenes within the book.

In both cases the outer story impinges on the inner story from time-to-time. In the novel the author interrupts the flow to say that the original went into numerous pages describing Buttercup’s wedding gown and he’s not going to recreate that here. In the film we have the grandchild interrupting when the story nears a kiss, stating that he doesn’t want to hear about that mushy stuff.

This technique of enclosing a story within a story is one that I have thought about a great deal. The novel I am currently working on falls into the exact same category. At the heart of it is a simple, straightforward tale about a group of explorers that come to an island and try to make their fortune upon it. Bookending (and occasionally interrupting) that tale is another one of an explorer that is viewing this other narrative as a memory, coming to terms with the tragedy that he/she knows will come at the story’s end.

There have been many times when writing this piece that I have wondered whether I wasn’t unnecessarily complicating things. Why not just write that inner story, the one about the explorers on the island, and drop the outer layer? Why doesn’t the Princess Bride work that way, too? It could have been just a straightforward fantasy story, why add a layer about a middleman relating it to the next generation?

The consideration, I’ve realized, is whether this layering of story is tied to the true purpose of the overall tale. In the Princess Bride there is a rich and complete fantasy story at its center, but at the end of the day that wasn’t the core story William Goldman (the author) was trying to relate. He was trying to talk about how we preserve stories like these to the next generation. And in my novel there is a complete story about explorers making their fortune, but that’s really not what my core story is all about. It’s about the regret of breaking something beautiful, and coming to believe in second chances.

This is also the same situation with my current short story: The Time Travel Situation. For this story I needed to wrap everything inside of an outer story of children playing pretend for it to even make sense. Incredulous things are happening that no one would accept from a straightforward sci-fi story, but when couched in the context of “these are kids playing pretend” anything becomes acceptable. But more importantly, The Time Travel Situation isn’t really about the adventure that makes up the bulk of text, it is about the kids who are playing it and the freedom of their imagination. The depiction of their real world might only make up a small minority of the wordcount, but it is still what the story is really about.

In these stories the “extra stuff” isn’t extra at all! It might only appear briefly, but it is the heart of the entire tale.

Intersecting Worlds)

There is yet another way to weave together multiple worlds in a single tale. It does not only have to be bookends that encapsulate the rest, it can also be multiple distinct threads wound into one.

This occurs numerous times in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. Here the protagonists invade the subconscious of another man, travelling through multiple layers of his dreams at the same time. But in the rules of the film, when one dives to a deeper level of dreaming, they also remain in the higher state as well. This leads to some complex interactions, such as a van falling off the bridge in the topmost layer, creating a sense of weightlessness in the layer below.

It isn’t only physical states that carry down from one level to the next either, emotional and mental states do as well. Thus a question about a dying father’s last words becomes an obsession at the next level as the implications are processed by the dreamer’s innermost core. And the lost love of the main protagonist continues to haunt him in more and more pronounced ways the deeper he goes, becoming a single emotion that defines everything about him.

This is deconstructionist story-telling, where everything is taken apart so that it can then be put back together. But while some lessons are learned at the deepest level, others only come into focus when stepped back into their full context. Thus the dying father’s words when examined on the micro level change the life of his son, but the all-consuming lost love of the protagonist is reminded that she cannot be the only force in his life when he returns back to the surface.

I have applied this technique only briefly in my current short story. In the last section of The Time Travel Situation I laid out two separate issues: one group of children were trying to stop a laser before it fired and the other were trying to protect their time machine from a raging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Each of these threads continued separately, hopping back and forth with no connection between. But then everything came together when the first group of children managed to push a massive boulder into the path of the laser. This blocked the laser, but also burst the rock into a million pieces of shrapnel, some of which flew over to the second group of children and punched through the Tyrannosaurus Rex, resolving their issue as well.

Perhaps not as emotional of an interweaving as the examples from Inception, but far more entertaining than if I had made the two threads resolve themselves independently. The surprise connection provides a delightful surprise to tie off the chapter.

Now the children are moving into a new area, though, and I am going to add another element of intersecting worlds to their tale. Every time they jump to another point there are going to be some stowaways that come along with, enhancing the chaos in each successive under domain. The first of these is the raptors that come from the age of dinosaurs to terrorize a pirate ship. Come back on Thursday to see this in motion!

Oh, Go Be Bored!

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A Story of Me)

I never lacked for food, clothing, or shelter as a child. I never brought any complaints to my mother in those departments. What complaint I do remember bringing to her, however, was that I was bored!

“Well you have plenty of toys!” she might say.

“Yes, and I’ve played with them all.”

“I haven’t heard you practice your piano lessons yet…”

“No thank you.”

“Why don’t you read a book?”

“I’ve read books.” (To be fair, I really had. I read many, many books in my youth.)

“Well I’ve certainly got my fair share of chores that you could help me out with.”

“I said I was bored, not a masochist!”

Clearly, it was up to me to resolve this dilemma.

It was a tricky problem. For starters my family was homeschooled and insulated, so I didn’t have any friends to hang out with. We didn’t have cable or internet or video games. We did have over-the-air television and movies, but I was quickly saturated with those and still dissatisfied. And it wasn’t entertainment I wanted anyway, it was something to do.

We did have a computer, though. A Windows 95, complete with Microsoft Office. Simply because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I gravitated towards this, and in my boredom found two great loves that have defined me ever since.

One was programming. I found how to record macros in Microsoft Excel, and I used that to start making simple point-and-click adventures. I would try to make sense of the generated code and modify it when it didn’t quite do what I wanted. I didn’t know that this “programming,” and I certainly didn’t know that you could make a living off of it. At that time it was just my own little world, and it would be years before I stepped into the wider universe of software development and made it into my career.

There was another “own little world” that I found on that computer, too. One day I opened up Microsoft Word and started writing out my first story. I got out all of four-and-a-half pages, literally could not think of a single other thing to say, so I typed THE END at the bottom.

I was hooked.

One story followed another. One about a superhero, one about a small ant, one about a group of orphaned children. Each one was longer than the one previous: ten pages, fifteen, twenty.

Finally, when I was about twelve, I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. From that point on everything I wrote was a fantasy. I scaled my writing up to an epic novel in five parts which totaled over 100,000 words. My next work was the only hand-written piece I’ve ever done, and it was over 300 pages.

And all of this writing was done primarily on days when I was bored. Eventually I got a job and went to college, and for a time was too busy for the writing. But thanks to the days of boredom, I had found the things that I loved to do, and I always knew that I would return to them eventually.

Boredom: The Sequel)

Nowadays, I am not nearly so bored. Of course there are the occasional moments of lethargic indifference, where nothing sounds interesting to me. And there are the brief stretches of time where I have to impatiently wait for something. But by and large boredom is not a way of life anymore.

And that’s alright, because I already have my passions to follow. So now boredom serves a new purpose. I don’t use it to seek out what vocation speaks to me, I use it to know when I’m doing a good job in that vocation. For example, when I’m writing a story and I start to get bored with it, I know it means that I’m leading the story down the wrong path.

Think of a story as a journey, one where you are willing to arrive at any destination, so long as it is an interesting one. With parameters that wide, you could take this journey in any manner of different directions. But of course, not all of those paths are going to be as fruitful. In this journey there are treacherous routes you need to avoid altogether. You certainly don’t want to get stuck in the bogs of inaction, or tangled in the doldrum forests, or lost in the mazes of irrelevant plot.

Each of these slows your progress, and some can even bring you to a complete stop. I know this firsthand.

Because for all the stories I mentioned up above, the ones that I completed in my teenage years, there were just as many that I only partially wrote. They were tales that I began with great excitement, but which somewhere along the way found unbearable to continue.

At the time I didn’t understand why I couldn’t finish those projects, why my stamina ran out on some stories but not on others. As I’ve gone back and read over the unfinished drafts, though, I’ve realized that I always quit right when I hit the boring parts.

It is barely tolerable to sit through the boring scenes as a reader, but it is all the more unlikely to power through them as the author.

In the course of writing this blog I have run into this same conundrum again. I had multiple instances where I dreaded continuing with my current story, and fortunately I realized that it was not an option to just force my way through. If I did that, then I would deliver stories that I hated and my readers would be bored out of their minds by, and eventually I would stop writing them altogether.

So instead I have learned to recognize that dread of writing for what it is: my journey has wandered into one of those paths of boredom. And when I realize this I say “Oh, looks like I found the wrong path. I really had meant to go down this way, but it’s better to give up those expectations than kill the whole thing.”

Then I delete the last few paragraphs–take a few steps back on the path–until I reach the junction where I turned into the troublesome area, and look for another way forward. And you know what? I’ve always been able to find one.

A Non-Boring End)

So here I am, writing stories that I truly enjoy, and I owe it all to boredom. Boredom led me to discover story-telling in the first place, and boredom showed up again just last week to save me from writing a lifeless exchange in my most recent story.

My first draft of the boys discovering the stranger had been platonic and rigid and unbearable to write. Thanks to boredom, that scene now features a freakish woman whose face has been turned to stone and a guard who wields a shotgun-crossbow. You’re welcome!

Come back on Thursday to see how that story progresses. I promise I will have course-corrected any time it started to stray towards boredom!